Leo Cullen: Joey Carbery will be better for 'tough' experience in Kingspan loss
On Sunday night, Joey Carbery added the Guinness PRO12 Young Player of the Year award to his burgeoning collection of honours, but the previous day there were signs that the momentum of his breakthrough year is slowing.
On his return to the No 10 jersey after a stint at full-back, Ulster marshalled the Athy youngster well throughout the game at Kingspan Stadium, and as the game went on his error count grew.
It is easy to forget just how far the former Clontarf out-half has come; just a year ago he was winning the All Ireland League with his club.
Since then Carbery has helped beat the All Blacks and Australia and been a key contributor to Leinster's march on the European semi-finals.
His coach, Leo Cullen, recognises some of the strain that was on show in Belfast but believes it is all part of the 21-year-old's learning experience.
"We know it's tough. Joey has coped incredibly well with everything that has been thrown at him this year, and he'll be better for the experience," Cullen said.
"That's one of the things you take. You're giving guys the experience and we've got ourselves to a home semi-final and Joey has been a huge contributor to that, whether that's been at No 10 or No 15, so there's been a lot of positives from him during the course of the season.
"It's difficult for any 21-year-old trying to manage a game when you think of all that's going on - a sold-out Kingspan, an emotionally charged Ulster team - and he'll be better for that experience.
"He's happy. He even took on the place-kicking duties as well and that's a big step for him.
"Again, I just see it as another positive step. It's not going to be perfect when you've got a 21-year-old stepping into such a key position.
"How many 21-year-olds are doing that at this level of competition? So I just see it as another positive step."
Cullen has handed his players a couple of days off after Saturday's disappointing defeat to Ulster before he begins preparations for next Friday's Guinness PRO12 semi-final against Scarlets at the RDS.
It is the province's second semi-final in a month and the coach is determined that his players don't repeat the mistakes that led to their undoing against Clermont Auvergne in Lyon - namely their start.
"It's important that we stick to the process and not get too over-hyped by the occasion," he said. "Maybe we were a little bit off in that area against Clermont. We gave away a couple of penalties. We misfired at the set-piece on a couple of occasions.
"We just got a little bit narrow in our defence; we got a bit caught looking in rather than being aware of some of the threats out wide.
"Definitely, how we manage that first 20 minutes and understand we need to stay composed and play our game whether we have the ball or don't have the ball…
"We've had a reasonably extensive review - manage that starting point well which gets us into the flow of the game.
"It's important we learn the lessons from losing that semi-final away from home, and what sort of different challenges there will be playing at home.
"There's a lot of positives when you think we've used 51 players, and a lot of 21- and 22-year-olds have been in that 51.
"So I think for the squad moving forward there are a lot of positives.
"We are into knockout games now and we need to knuckle down. It's a serious time of the year when there are always a few distractions, so it is important we narrow our focus so that we can best prepare for this and deliver a positive performance."
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