Wednesday 21 February 2018

Comment: How long do we wait to see if Joey Carbery is ready to take the next step?

7 November 2017; Joey Carbery poses for a portrait after an Ireland rugby press conference at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
7 November 2017; Joey Carbery poses for a portrait after an Ireland rugby press conference at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Jack O'Toole

There’s three things you can guarantee in Irish life in 2017; death, taxes and Rob Kearney’s place in the Irish national team.

Alright, the joke is old, and it’s not very original, but here we are again with Kearney as Ireland’s first-choice full-back heading into another round of November internationals.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt said that his decision to start Kearney for this weekend’s opening test against South Africa was based on experience, and that this time last year he beat New Zealand full-back Ben Smith to a kick-off in a game that finished 40-29…. right.... say no more.

Kearney’s 76 Ireland caps definitely covers the experience element of his selection, and with Keith Earls injured and Simon Zebo ostracised, his practical knowledge may be of use to relative international newcomers Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale, who share just five caps between them.

But interestingly, while Schmidt highlighted one game last year for Kearney, and not any of the four tests he started during last season’s Six Nations, much less the three games he’s played so far for Leinster this season, the New Zealander did add that he wanted to pick players based on form.

“We were looking for form players,” said Schmidt when asked if he thought he had found the right balance in his backline.

“We wanted to reward players who had been going well for the provinces and I think we also wanted to keep some experience.

“I think we got a bit of both in guys like Conor [Murray], Johnny [Sexton] and Robbie [Henshaw], and at the same time Rob Kearney brings that experience and we know that he can play fresh up, fast from the start.”

‘We’ in this instance must mean the Irish coaching staff, as the general public still have huge doubts as to whether Kearney can string three full games together, never mind play fast.

The two-time Lions tourist has played a full 80 minutes just once this season and he missed the summer tour of Japan and the USA with recurring bicep and knee issues.

His 76 caps and three provincial games in the last six months have earned him a start in this Irish team, yet for Joey Carbery, who has four caps, and three tries, three try assists, seven linebreaks and 19 beaten defenders for Leinster this season, he gets a spot on the bench.

If Keith Earls were available, and not ruled out with a hamstring tear, maybe the Munster winger starts instead of provincial teammate Conway, allowing Carbery a run at full-back, but maybe he starts alongside Kearney instead.

Maybe Schmidt really does hold experience in a much higher regard than form, and maybe Carbery has been kept out of the starting side for the mistakes he made during the summer tour, but at some stage, you have to see if Carbery is ready for the next level.

The Clontarf utility has been the form Irish full-back so far this season and he’s proven that he can perform on the biggest stage at PRO14 and Champions Cup level, but outside of the 22 minutes he received against New Zealand in Chicago and the 50 minutes he played against the Wallabies in Dublin last year, we really haven’t seen him truly tested against Tier 1 international opposition as a starting full-back.

At 22 years of age, Schmidt can still afford to take his time with the Blackrock College product, but the November internationals naturally allow a lot more room for experimentation and flexibility than the Six Nations permits.

However, at some stage, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

During last year’s Six Nations, England coach Eddie Jones said that he did not want to build up then 21-year-old lock Maro Itoje to be a headline name before he really was deserving of ­headlines.

Jones said that Itoje was ‘a work in progress’ and that he needed time to develop after he came off the bench during England’s second game of the tournament against Italy.

Itoje impressed off the pine, proceeded to start the following game against Ireland two weeks later and he has not looked back since.

What about Damian McKenzie? The standout full-back of Super Rugby over the last two seasons.

If Carbery plays against the Springboks on Saturday he will make his fifth appearance for Ireland.

McKenzie, 22, made his sixth international appearance for New Zealand in September against the same South African side that Carbery will face this weekend.

McKenzie played the full 80 minutes in a 57-0 thrashing of South Africa at QBE Stadium in Albany.

The wingers that played alongside him in the New Zealand back three that day? Nehe Milner-Skudder, 11 caps, and Rieko Ioane, who was making just his seventh appearance with the All Blacks.

New Zealand ran in eight tries to nil. Their inexperienced back three accounted for three of those scores.

17 of the 23 South African players that played that evening will front up against Ireland in Dublin this weekend. Should we have rolled the dice with talent or experience?

With Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw in the starting side for this weekend, there's no shortage of experience in the Irish backline, but when do you want to see if Carbery has what it takes to be an international full-back? Two weeks from now against Argentina? Three months from now in Ireland's Six Nations opener in Paris?

Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg was selected for a British & Irish Lions tour at the age of 21. Maro Itoje was a regular starter for England at 21. Damian McKenzie started every game of the Rugby Championship for New Zealand at 22. Carbery continues to play second fiddle to an oft-injured Rob Kearney at the same age.

Is he good enough? Is it a matter of talent or a lack of opportunity?

Carbery said this week: "I want to keep getting better and hopefully, maybe become one of the best players in the world.”

How much longer do we wait before we find out?

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