Monday 19 February 2018

Joey Carbery and Simon Zebo in a head-to-head shootout for the Irish 15 jersey - Who would you choose?

Zebo and Carbery
Zebo and Carbery

Jack O'Toole

With Rob Kearney's days as Ireland's preeminent full-back well and truly numbered, two viable contenders have emerged to challenge for his undisputed title as Joe Schmidt’s first-choice no.15.

Fighting out of the red corner, standing at 6'3 and weighing in at 15.4 st, with an impressive 55 tries in 124 provincial appearances, is Munster's Simon Zebo.

In the blue corner, standing at 6'0 and weighing in at 13.9 st, with 11 tries in 28 provincial appearances, is Leinster's Joey Carbery.

Two fighters battling it out to join an Irish backline that will undoubtedly have some very big body punchers. Some speed to complement the power.

Who would you prefer at 15 for Ireland?

But who do you take in a straight shootout between Carbery and Zebo?

Both, potentially, if Zebo moves to the wing and Schmidt has to make a choice between Keith Earls and Ulster's Jacob Stockdale, but if Ireland want to keep their options on the flanks open, Schmidt is going to have to ultimately choose between Zebo and Carbery at full-back.

The New Zealander could of course parachute Tiernan O'Halloran or Andrew Conway into the contest, as he has done in the past, but Carbery and Zebo are undoubtedly the two best full-back's in the country at present.

But how do they compare? Quite favourably.

Carbery has had a sensational start to this season and has beaten 18 defenders through five games, to go along with his three tries, two try assists and seven linebreaks.

Zebo by comparison, has beaten five defenders through four games, to go along with his two tries, zero try assists and just two linebreaks.

However, it must be noted that Munster's draw away to Castres on Saturday was the Cork flier's first start of the season following his recovery from a knee injury in the summer.

It's unfair to compare the two statistically given Zebo's limited time on the pitch this season, but if we look at Leinster's win over Montpellier and Munster's draw with Castres as stand alone matches, one statistic jumps out.

Passes completed.

Against Montpellier, Carbery picked up 84 metres on the ground while Zebo ran for 78 metres in Castres.

Carbery had 15 carries on Saturday. Zebo had 10.

Carbery beat one defender. Zebo went past two. They had one linebreak each.

But maybe most importantly, Carbery completed 12 passes to Zebo's four, and Munster had more possession in their game with Castres than Leinster did in their win over Montpellier (49%:52%).

Both Carbery and Zebo scored tries over the weekend but Carbery also notched an assist on Barry Daly's final score for Leinster.

The statistics support Carbery's ability as a playmaker but he also passes the eye test.

Leinster winger Adam Byrne put in another strong performance on Saturday and on one particular phase, Carbery sent his bustling teammate behind the opposition defence with a beautiful cut out pass.

The Ireland hopeful broke tackle after tackle from there, but Carbery put him in a strong position to do so with a spiral across the face of the Montpellier line.

Ireland have always had a very safe pair of hands at the back in Rob Kearney, and before him in Girvan Dempsey, but they've never really had a playmaking full-back in a similar breadth to Carbery.

The talented 21-year-old consistently gives Leinster an option at first-receiver, wherever he is on the field, and he creates more opportunities for his teammates.

With Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw likely to reprise their centre partnership in the absence of Garry Ringrose (shoulder) and Jared Payne (concussion), Ireland could use a secondary playmaker like Carbery to aide and support Johnny Sexton at fly-half.

Joe Schmidt's side scored 14 tries in last year's Six Nations, tied for second with Scotland, but nine were scored in the 63-10 demolition of Italy in Rome.

In Carbery's first full season at Leinster the Blues scored a league high 91 tries in the Pro 12. The previous campaign they hit the chalk 51 times.

Stuart Lancaster obviously played a big role in that number nearly doubling, but Carbery also played a  significant part,  leading the team with eight tries as well as playing a key hand in a lot of their other scores.

Zebo showed some great glimpses of what he is capable of against Castres on Sunday. He has a phenomenal understanding with Conor Murray and he runs some great lines, probably the best in the country, as seen in the build up to Dave Kilcoyne's try as well as his botched intercept attempt later in the half.

But Ireland need someone to create tries as well as finish them next month. Carbery provides plenty in both categories. An extra set of hands to feed some very fast feet and some very big bodies.

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