Sunday 22 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Sexton and Carbery mirroring Carter/Barrett succession plan - and it bodes well for Ireland'

 

Fly-half master and apprentice: Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery lining up some kicking practice with Ireland – Sexton has a big part to play in shaping the future path of the current Munster No 10. Photo: Sportsfile
Fly-half master and apprentice: Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery lining up some kicking practice with Ireland – Sexton has a big part to play in shaping the future path of the current Munster No 10. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

If the building of Irish out-half depth were to be the focus of a 'Grand Designs' episode, presenter Kevin McCloud, for once, would surely declare that the project was all going to plan, on time and even under budget.

An abundance of quality players now populate this country and our stocks seem to be in rude health across the field, even in the traditional stumbling block that is the No 10 spot.

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Joey Carbery's move to Munster may be viewed as a masterstroke in years to come.

The succession plan is in place, and it's all starting to look a little bit familiar too.

To have Carbery, 23, a devastating broken-field runner with world-class playmaking abilities and a renewable well of confidence, regularly playing at No 10 eases the pressure on our international team's keystone.

To give him the opportunity to outshine, rather than just replace, the international incumbent in Johnny Sexton, the world's best player in 2018, has completely changed the dynamic and the terms of engagement - for the better.

In January 2015, Dan Carter, one of the greatest players of all time, was on his victory lap on the international stage.

He had one eye on a big-money move to Europe at the end of the year but first he was desperate to guide the All Blacks to a World Cup success following his injury nightmare four years previously.

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A master practitioner of Carter's sway appeared untouchable for a long time, but Aaron Cruden, Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett kept him honest in the build-up to the World Cup four years ago.

As the tournament edged closer, such was Barrett's form for the Hurricanes - starring as they reached just a second Super Rugby final in the franchise's history - that there were plenty calling for the up-and-coming playmaker to leapfrog Carter and spearhead the All Black assault at the Rugby World Cup.

Twelve months previous to that such a thought would have been blasphemous in the rugby-worshipping 'Land of the Long White Cloud'.

While Carter eventually edged that particular duel, he was undoubtedly energised by it as the All Blacks made it back-to-back World Cup wins, while Barrett still made a huge impact in the tournament - scoring tries in the semi-final and final, playing alongside Carter, after being introduced at full-back in the second half to pick gaps in tiring defences with his snappy footwork and blistering speed.

With games in the melting pot, Carter was too important a figure to take off and Barrett was too dangerous an option not to unleash.

Their combined scoring - Barrett's tries and Carter's drop goals and penalties - got Steve Hansen's side over the line.

Both men played key roles and that is something worth remembering when we weigh up the Irish equation.

Keeping

The succession plan was obvious at that point and to the credit of Barrett - and Steve Hansen and Co - he assumed the mantle of the world's best player as if Carter had merely been keeping the seat warm for him all along.

There are a lot of similarities between Carbery and Barrett - their ability to slalom and think on their feet, an unshakeable confidence, and natural skills that allow them to see-saw between out-half and full-back.

The pair also spent significant chunks of their childhood in both Ireland and New Zealand; Barrett's time in Meath lasting a year, while Carbery's move to Kildare would become permanent - although mixing juvenile spells in Leinster and the north island of New Zealand is yet to be scientifically proven as a formula for developing world-class out-halves.

Carbery and Barrett have both faced criticism over their place-kicking but neither seems to be particularly fazed when staring at the posts with a bad day at the office still lingering in everyone else's minds.

Both men are fortified by levels of confidence that most of us mortals struggle to comprehend.

When I look at Carbery I can't help but feel envious of how self-assured he is.

Don't get me wrong, he's a humble, grounded young man - but he knows how good he is, and more importantly, how great he can become.

I was never like that. For a long time I convinced myself I was out of my depth with club and country and in hindsight, that probably held me back a bit.

You don't tell the New Zealand media that "long term I'd like to win a World Cup and be the best player in the world" - as he did last week - if you are any way lacking in belief.

Carbery's rise has been remarkable. It wasn't long ago that he made a different switch of allegiance; moving to Clontarf seeking more game-time, with Ross Byrne ahead of him in the UCD pecking order.

And it was his standout performances for Clontarf in the Ulster Bank League that gave him a platform to really show off his considerable talents.

I saw him in the flesh for the first time when working at the AIL final in May 2016, when he scored one try and kicked four conversions in a man-of-the-match display against Cork Con.

Picking the stand-out player on the field is often done tentatively and with delicate levels of diplomacy, but it was a simple decision at the Aviva that day.

I had heard rumours about this New Zealand-born kid, but upon seeing him, and knowing the logjam of young out-halves behind Sexton at provincial level, my reaction was, 'get him to Munster, quick, if he can't get a deal with Leinster'.

Considering how sharply his star has risen in the past two and a half years, Carbery is right to shoot for the moon.

Response

The away defeat to Castres, and Carbery's response to it, has already told us more about the 23-year-old than a man-of-the-match performance ever could.

To respond to those three missed kicks on that dank night in the south of France by subsequently nailing 20 in a row off the tee speaks volumes for this young man's character.

We have learned in recent months that it takes a lot to rattle Joey Carbery. And even if you manage to shake him up a bit, you won't get under his skin.

Castres centre Thomas Combezou smashed Carbery in that 13-12 loss in France before standing over the Munster fly-half, goading him, desperately seeking a reaction.

Carbery, unruffled, gathered himself on the ground, took a deep breath and dusted himself down.

To someone as predisposed to getting red mist as yours truly, I can only admire someone who can keep their cool in such heated scenarios.

If that had been me on the deck I would have spent the remainder of the game trying to land a shot on Combezou.

Similarly, when Sexton pulled his former apprentice to the ground over the festive period, Carbery didn't make a meal of it during the game or in his post-match interview. He knows when people are fishing for a reaction and is somehow mature enough, despite his relatively tender years, not to bite.

A bit of edginess between Sexton and Carbery is healthy from an Irish perspective, it won't bother Joe Schmidt one bit and shows the Leinster No 10 is conscious that the gap is closing.

Carbery's form on the field naturally raises the question about making the most of his talents from an Irish perspective and while he looks a shoo-in to be Ireland's second-choice No 10 for 2019, his versatility - much like Barrett did for New Zealand in 2015 - adds to Schmidt's considerable arsenal.

It is probably too big a risk to start your No 1 and No 2 playmakers in the same game, but I would like to see Carbery get some game-time alongside Sexton over the coming months.

Sexton has played alongside Ronan O'Gara (2011 World Cup) and Owen Farrell (Lions tour) to good effect in the past; having a second playmaker can be a big advantage in keeping the defence guessing and taking some of the relentless pressure off the 2018 World Player of the Year to steer Ireland over the line.

Such are Carbery's abilities that he could probably be a viable option at inside or outside-centre too, but if he continues to improve over the next four months then there may need to be a rethink on how he is best used for the biggest days ahead in 2019.

If fit and firing, and the game still in the balance, you would want Sexton calling the shots in the dying embers of a World Cup quarter-final.

But equally, with tired legs in the opposing defensive line, it would be a waste not to have Carbery trying to pick the locks in tandem with his former Leinster team-mate.

Ireland need to make the most of their resources if they are to realise their grand visions for 2019. I'm sure Kevin McCloud would agree.

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