Joe Schmidt's top priority after the 2015 World Cup was building depth at 10, how has he fared?
Ireland look to the World Cup knowing they won't be caught short like they were in 2015
The dust hadn't even begun to settle in Cardiff on Ireland's first ever World Cup win over France when already the body count was getting in the way. If Argentina, Ireland's opponents in the quarter-final, had installed a sniper in the upper tier of the Millennium Stadium, he could hardly have done a better job on taking out the team leaders. Johnny Sexton, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony were all done for before the finish. Seán O'Brien would join them on suspension. Sure enough, another Irish World Cup campaign would end in failure.
The loss of Sexton was massive. Ian Madigan did well to come on and get Ireland over the line against France, but the shift in playmaking would be a game-changer against the Pumas. Backing Madigan up in that quarter-final would be Paddy Jackson. The young Ulster outhalf would be the only replacement left on the bench that day. As far as Joe Schmidt was concerned, he didn't, at that point, offer what was required.
If Eddie O'Sullivan came out of the 2003 World Cup knowing that he needed to change his coaching team - specifically to offload Declan Kidney - and to get more control over the number of games his players played at provincial level (the birth of the controversial Player Management Programme) then Schmidt came home from the 2015 gig with depth at 10 as his top priority. There was no guarantee he would be in the job four years later. If he was, however, then the priority was to have a few candidates who could run the show at outhalf.
Immediately post-World Cup the band of 10s listed Sexton, Madigan, Paddy Jackson, and Ian Keatley. Declan Kidney had given Jackson his debut in 2013, a bit earlier than Ronan O'Gara would have wanted. It was like watching an illustration of Be Careful What You Wish For.
By the time the World Cup rolled around two years later, Jackson was tucked in behind Sexton and Madigan with 12 caps under his belt. And nine months down the line the door would open wide. He was the starter on the tour to South Africa, with Sexton injured and Madigan - by then a Bordeaux player-in-waiting - on the bench. If it was a decent tour for Ireland, breaking new ground with the win in the First Test in Cape Town, it was a turbo boost for Jackson.
A year later we were watching him lead the tour to the US and Japan. At one point on that trip he was up for media duty and, despite what was simmering away back home, he was utterly relaxed. He had missed the American leg because of visa issues over his impending legal case. It was presented like a speedbump. Subsequently it turned into a car crash.
When the rape case concluded in March, Paddy Jackson had been Joe Schmidt's clear choice as back-up to Johnny Sexton. Joey Carbery had emerged in late 2016 but Jackson had developed into a quality Test player. Then the tap was turned off. In the tsunami of coverage over his behaviour, the point least focused on was the time expended on developing a player with 25 caps.
It was hardly politic for Schmidt to whinge about that turn of events, but very quickly it ramped up the pressure on Joey Carbery's situation. Leinster loved having Carbery in their squad, but as a fullback, not an outhalf. The irony was that Schmidt, not just a very good coach but a very controlling man, was presumed to be pulling the strings in provincial selection. The chain he wanted to yank most was the one that would haul Carbery from 15 to 10.
If the national coach rated Carbery ahead of Ross Byrne - who Leinster had as back-up to Sexton - then something had to be done. The Madigan situation at the 2015 World Cup looked like a luxury by comparison. Madigan had played 18 times for Leinster that season, seven of them starting at 10. On top of that he had come off the bench at 10 in each of the five Six Nations games. He had started one of the World Cup warm-ups at 10, plus one of the pool games, and come off the bench there in two others. If we thought Ian Madigan was short of a gallop at 10 then Carbery had no chance of getting within an ass's roar of those stats.
You have to wonder about the picture that went viral on social media last year of Carbery, his dad Joe senior, and Schmidt having coffee in a busy café in south Dublin. Never was the expression 'get a room' more appropriate. Whatever, Schmidt got his way and Carbery swapped blue for red, and regular game-time with Munster.
The coach, along with IRFU performance director David Nucifora, reckoned there was enough talent on the island to fill a few 10 shirts, if they could be given the time of day. So the IRFU pulled rank fairly sharply on Ulster when they wanted South Africa's Elton Jantjies to fill the hole left by Jackson. Billy Burns, on the other hand, is Ireland-qualified. It was a much better piece of business
Carbery never fancied much the prospect of going north. The move to Munster, however, has already paid off. He started for them against Gloucester in Kingsholm on Friday night, his tenth start at outhalf this season. When he shifted to fullback for the last 20 minutes against Connacht last week, to accommodate Tyler Bleyendaal, there was an outbreak of indignation among Leinster fans. Relax lads. He is an outhalf who plays fullback very well.
Against Gloucester he stayed at 10 for all of his 71 minutes, by which time he had run up 26 points in a man-of-the-match performance. This is why Schmidt urged him to clear out of Leinster. And this is why he agreed. Johann van Graan's safety-first game-plan makes it harder for Carbery to give full value, but he managed it against Gloucester. The start to the second half was significant for it featured the one mistake Carbery made all night: he left short the drop-off. Everything else was on the money.
If it's a relief to Schmidt to have Carbery getting regular exposure to top-class rugby at 10, then he feels even better when he looks at how the landscape has changed around the country. It was interesting to hear Stuart Lancaster last week referring to Ross Byrne as the most improved player in Leinster over the previous 12 months, and thoroughly deserving of his call-up to Ireland. Given that Byrne was needed to fill in for Sexton against Toulouse yesterday, Lancaster was hardly going to say he was a bag of spanners, but neither did he have to put him on that pedestal unless he was either a) desperate or b) believed it. We think it's the latter.
Byrne is a good rugby player, a fine footballer with plenty of backbone, who knows his way around the field. Sadly, he was passed over by the Fast Twitch Fairy, and that becomes more of an issue the higher he goes, but he is making the most of every crumb of talent he has.
When Carbery bailed out we felt Leinster would feel the pinch on days when Sexton was under the weather. Enter Ciarán Frawley. It was clear from his performances as an under 20 at UCD that the Skerries man had the basics of a good all-rounder, but the ease with which he has settled in on match days is remarkable. You had to feel for Ulster in the RDS last weekend. Carbery in Munster, Sexton and Byrne indisposed, and Frawley steps up like an experienced senior player instead of what he is: an Academy man. Leinster should have gone with him yesterday on the bench ahead of Noel Reid.
By comparison, Jack Carty in Connacht has been on a longer, harder road. This season he has made it look like freewheeling. Schmidt has a habit of name-checking everyone in the jurisdiction, when pressed on individuals, but Carty has deserved the good feedback he's been getting from head office about his contribution to Connacht's positive season.
In all of this, supporters forget about the diaspora, for across four provinces are three current Test 10s - and behind them a handful who aspire to the same status. The IRFU policy is one of 'out of sight, out of mind' but circumstances can change. Whatever about Ian Madigan in Bristol, we suspect Jackson will be back in the mix before too long.
EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES: SCHMIDT’S TOP TENS
Johnny Sexton (Leinster)
Ireland Caps: 78
Games this season: 10
Ross Byrne (Leinster)
Games this season: 14
Ciarán Frawley (Leinster)
Games this season: 6
Joey Carbery (Munster)
Games this season: 16
Jack Carty (Connacht)
Games this season: 15
Ian Madigan (Bristol)
Games this season: 10
Paddy Jackson (Perpignan)
Games this season: 13
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