Monday 24 September 2018

Leinster's tale of three out-halves hangs over final week

Carbery conundrum continues to dominate the discussion as Bilbao approaches

Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery warm up during training in UCD yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery warm up during training in UCD yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Stuart Lancaster has been filling Johnny Sexton's head with talk of Tom Brady, but Leinster must beware of the story of Jimmy Garoppolo.

Last week, the Ireland out-half spoke about following the legendary New England Patriots' quarterback in playing on until 40 at the highest level having been put on to his exploits by the Leinster senior coach.

Despite his advancing years, Brady has kept his consistency levels high and led the franchise back to the Super Bowl last February and, although his side came up short against the Philadelphia Eagles, he has vowed to continue at the highest level.

All the while, the Patriots' succession plans have been left in ruins and the young man signed to replace Brady, Garoppolo, has lost patience and sought success elsewhere.

Moving to the San Francisco 49ers has worked a treat for the 26-year-old who was one of the stars of the league in a coming team last season and watching Patriots fans have wondered whether holding on to Brady for a glorious final few seasons was worth it to lose a player of his calibre.

Anointed

Famously, when Graham Henry visited Leinster for a two-week consultancy ahead of last season, he spotted Carbery and anointed him "your fly-half for the next 10 years".

At the end of his second season, he is Ireland's back-up No 10 who will cover Sexton's position in the Champions Cup final on Saturday, but he has had his match minutes limited in his favoured position and has a choice on his hands.

Leinster want him to stay, the IRFU and Joe Schmidt would like him to go to Ulster and fill the void left by Paddy Jackson's departure.

With the World Cup looming there is an urgency for the national coach who understandably wants to avoid a repeat of the 2015 scenario when Ian Madigan started the quarter-final defeat to Argentina despite playing largely at centre for Leinster in the previous season.

Provincial rivals would scoff if you described Leinster's conundrum as a problem, yet it needs a solution.

With Sexton now confidently talking of continuing on until the 2021 Lions tour at least, Ross Byrne a capable deputy trusted by the Leinster coaches and Carbery kicking his heels or playing at full-back, there is a log-jam.

Throw in the promise of Ciaran Frawley and Harry Byrne coming through in the next season or two and there is a healthy production line below.

Despite his injury travails over the years, Sexton has been available for almost all of the big games this season and will start against his former club this weekend in flying form after a campaign of careful management.

Ross Byrne has been the stand-in for most of the games when Sexton has been rested or injured and he can count himself unlucky if he is, as expected, squeezed out of the selection picture this weekend.

And then there is Carbery whose form has dipped in recent weeks as he weighs up his big decision.

While making a case for Carbery to stay, Lancaster wants the player's interests to be put before the national or provincial need.

"I've been involved in this sort of situation quite a few times in England in my role, not just as an England coach but also in charge of the academies," he said.

"Often you'll get a situation where maybe a player is sat and there's a decision to make: is this the right thing to do, is it right to go to an U-20 World Cup? Is it right to have an off-season?

"My view has always been, and still is, you do what's right for the player. You put the player at the centre of the decision, so you don't do anything other than that.

"If one party thinks this and another party thinks that, it's about what's right for the player. I don't think it's anyone's fault that Joey hasn't played as much this year as everyone would have liked.

"You look at the injury at the start of pre-season and you look at the injury in the Fiji game that pretty much ruled him out of a whole chunk of time, and obviously the Six Nations came.

"In my view, Joey has developed brilliantly here. He's a fantastic player and I wouldn't want him to leave.

"No decision has been made. I think people have obviously spoken to both Ross and Joey to give their point of view, but then ultimately it's down to the player to make that decision and that's the way I see it. I think he's a great player, he's played at 15 and at 10 for us and he would have played more at 10 if he hadn't been injured.

"Development takes its own course and things happen sometimes and I think I spoke this time last year, you asked me about Joey and if he is a 10 or a 15, and I look at Beauden Barrett and I still think the same.

"I look at Joey and the comparisons are so prevalent for me and I don't think we should change the course of someone's direction unless it's in the interests of the player first and foremost."

Barrett bided his time before Dan Carter, potentially Carbery's opposite number next weekend, moved to France and he took over the All Blacks No 10 shirt. Of course, they never played for the same Super Rugby side and Barrett was building his game-time with the Hurricanes as well as deputising for the national team.

Like Carter in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup, Sexton remains the main man for his club and country despite the talented deputies below him.

And Lancaster is hugely impressed by his contribution at Leinster.

"It is obvious what he brings on the field but it is the bit behind the scenes that people don't see that is the key to Johnny," the former England coach said.

"I have loved coaching with him. His knowledge of the game and his ability to use that knowledge in the heat of battle in the game is incredible.

"His ability to keep calm and composed, to think things through and solve the puzzle while in the game.

"He sees things like very few players I have coached, so there is a gap. An international player would see the gap. A world-class player like Johnny would be through the gap.

"He is that good, in my opinion. I think he would agree as well that he has been coached by some very good coaches along the way and because of his meticulous approach to preparation he has absorbed all those lessons from all those great coaches.

"That has made him the complete player. Then you layer on his commitment to Leinster, his desire to win things, his competitiveness and his desire to keep playing until he is 40 and then…"

Last week, Sexton revealed that he has become "obsessed" with Brady since Lancaster introduced him to the legendary NFL star.

"I think his wife is a bit upset with me because I can see the comparison," the coach said with a smile.

"Honestly, I can. When I started watching the Patriots and understanding how they went to five Super Bowls and Tom Brady is the quarterback who has done it I could see it. I kept finding clips and sending them to Johnny."

More longevity for Sexton is good news for Leinster fans, but it will hardly be music to the ears of his understudy who has ambitions of his own.

"I think Joey has developed brilliantly at Leinster and I think this is where he should stay," Lancaster said yesterday.

It is a difficult choice for a young man to make, but as he considers his next move he will be fully aware that Sexton has no intention of going anywhere soon.

As Sexton follows the Brady example, Carbery must decide if he should take the Garoppolo route to the top.

Irish Independent

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