Comment: Joey Carbery makes great mistakes but he must be allowed to make them
Tonight some will desperately want to see Joey Carbery thrive in Munster red. Others will pine for the recent days when he thrilled when sporting Leinster blue. Still more will eagerly await the time when he once more dazzles in green.
"I'm happy in Leinster, I always will be happy in Leinster." - Joey Carbery, Leinster player, January
"It will get easier with time. It's still quite raw at the moment." - Joey Carbery, Munster player, May
"I'm loving it out here. I can't wait to go back to Leinster and put it up to them!" - Joey Carbery, Munster player, October
Many different people want Joey Carbery to be many different things. The beauty of Joey Carbery is that he only wants to be himself. Wherever he plays the game, whatever shirt he wears, his skin in the game remains exactly the same.
The barefoot boy who once dreamed of being an All Black may have travelled half-way around the world in the second act of his life but, for him alone, the play is the thing. Tonight is not about Munster or Leinster but for him alone as he once again assumes the spotlight on the stage that first gave expression to his wondrous skills for Clontarf just two short years ago.
His roving existence is central to why the only person seemingly not discommoded by the shock transfer south is Joey Carbery.
That his father, Joey, should have found himself in Auckland as a two-year-old boy; a long way from Athy. And then return home as a man, meeting Amanda, before resuming a life in New Zealand and, then, beginning a family.
Joey junior. Born in Auckland but raised on the nearby beaches of the North Island. His first toy was a rugby ball; at three, he recalls trying to insert a mouth-guard.
He was born to play. That is his identity.
And how thankful we must be to the denizens of Athy RFC who acted as midwife to the gilded dreams of an apprentice sorcerer.
Since then, although he may have wanted to represent New Zealand but instead ended up on an Irish side that historically defeated them, or else devoted himself to Leinster before switching to Munster, that has been his sole motivation. To play and be the best he can be.
And for Irish sports fans who crave their soul to be lifted by the great deeds of another, the privilege will be ours for some time to come. He needs to play and, assuming he does so for the next fortnight in Europe, he will have done so for eight successive weeks, an unprecedented run of games for one beholden to his ultimate employers, the IRFU.
The immediate short-term priority for those in charge is next year's World Cup and yet, at just 22, there is the intoxicating allure that the challenge in Japan may only be the first of many on the global stage.
Palpably, and despite their weighty protestations, Carbery was simply not playing enough for Leinster to sustain his own personal desires and those of the national team coach Joe Schmidt and his boss, performance director David Nucifora.
"I don't shy away from what we're trying to do, that's my job," is Nucifora's abrupt explanation. "My job is to make sure that we have the best players playing and I'm sure if Leinster or any of the other teams could keep as many good players as they possibly can, of course that's what they'll do. That's only natural, I expect that.
"But at times, there are things in the system that clash and that was one of them. We've got 12 months to get Joey playing.
"We had to put Joey on the field in a Test match in Australia to get game-time.
"That's not ideal, but we've got a coach who's prepared to do that and I take my hat off to him for that. That's an investment. Joey made a decision that if he wants to be the starting number 10 and surpass Johnny - because I'd suggest that's what his ambitions are - then he knows he needs to play there regularly.
"Also, in that position more than a lot of other positions you've got to be in the driver's seat. There's no good us sitting back after 2019's quarter-final and say 'if only' or 'we should have'. The player wanted to do it, we needed it to happen, it happened and now we all just get on with it. That's just the way it works, I suppose."
Privately, some within the Irish set-up will still cringe at the memory that, of all the injuries that rocked them before the last World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, the one to Sexton wounded them deeper than any other.
His replacement, Ian Madigan, had found himself in a similar quandary to Carbery at Leinster; unsettled in terms of his starting position, uncertain in terms of starting.
He would leave too but for France, exiting the national picture. Ian Keatley, the next cab off the rank, has singularly failed to consistently impress the national coaches.
With 2019 in mind, Irish rugby couldn't afford to mess up with Carbery - even if they had to annoy Leinster in the process.
Ulster had been an option, too, before he alighted upon Munster. Schmidt spoke to him and didn't tell him what to do, merely advised him of the equation; either way, it all added up to the same answer.
Injury admittedly skews the picture but it is still nevertheless instructive that this season he has already played twice the amount of minutes at out-half compared to his final campaign with Leinster.
It was not only his expressed desire to remove himself from Sexton's shadow which prompted his switch, but also the uncertain rivalry with Ross Byrne, his direct opponent today, which would have been to the forefront of his mind.
Byrne's name is not nearly to the fore in terms of the national conversation but, as one who commandeered a club starting place ahead of his slightly younger peer, it is one that demands respect.
Which is probably why it is no less intriguing that today's battle pitches Carbery against Byrne, rather than Sexton. And Sexton's world-class ability cannot be replicated in another. The fear may be that a sport that so often these days spurns instinct and daring may attempt to stifle a triumph of ingenuity in order to forge some sense of clone of the elder man.
History informs that this would be an error. Just as Sexton was neither Ronan O'Gara nor Felipe Contepomi, Joey Carbery cannot conceivably be smithied into something he is not. Already at Munster, particularly on away days when their pack has been bullied, Carbery has demonstrated his as yet undeveloped capacity to manage a game like the greatest number 10s.
Yet even on Ireland duty this summer, there seemed to be an impatient insistence on forcing him to play deeper than required, as if shoehorning him into a system, rather than allowing his force of personality to emerge. Carbery makes great mistakes and one hopes he continues to be allowed make them for such is the tightrope upon which his genius thrives.
Munster and Ireland may demand immediate results from Carbery but he should not demand them for himself. And, although 2019 may define Ireland and Schmidt, it should not define him.
Carbery is playing a long game. One that threatens to thrill us all for years to come. Just let him play it. And let us enjoy him.
FIVE PLAYERS WHO RETURNED TO HAUNT THEIR FORMER EMPLOYERS
The Portuguese star had made his name at Old Trafford but had long hankered for a move to Real Madrid; he would belatedly get his way in 2009 and eventually return to haunt his erstwhile mentor Alex Ferguson.
Drawn together in the 2012/’13 Champions League last 16, Ronaldo scored in a 1-1 draw in Spain before repeating the feat in a clinching 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
“I feel a little bit sad because it is not easy to forget this home. I played for six years here and the people were very nice to me. It was quite a strange feeling.”
Different era, same sinking feeling for United as one of their most famous sons condemned them to relegation with one of the most infamous goals in their history.
The Scot played in the 1968 European Cup final win which marked the transformation from Munich Air tragedy to the affirmation of the re-built ‘Busby Babes’, only to be sold as the club’s fortunes declined.
In 1974, Law played his final league game but in City colours at United’s home; his solitary goal did not precisely relegate his former club – they were doomed anyway – but it still hurt him as much as it did United, whose fans had generously received him at kick-off.
“I have seldom felt so depressed in my life as I did that weekend,” Law later said.
Figo was the great defector, one of the few to move to Barcelona from Real Madrid, a move loaded with not merely football intensity but political import, too.
Rabid locals tossed a pig’s head on to the field in disgust; Leinster fans are unlikely to toss crubeens in Carbery’s direction but, in a week when a cabbage was tossed in Steve Bruce’s direction who can tell!
“I was worried that some madman might lose his head that night.” Figo was right; except the madman lost something else’s head instead.
The legendary quarterback issued more retirement threats than Sinatra until the Green Bay Packers called his bluff in 2008 and appointed Aaron Rodgers as his successor to end his 16-year career.
Favre returned with the Packers’ age-old rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in 2009 and 24 of 31 passes, 271 yards and three touchdowns.
His side lost but he issued an ominous statement that would presage his second coming shortly afterwards.
“I wasn’t out to prove anything. I know I can play. My statement is what I’ve done over my career.” The home fans wore T-shirts that read ‘Buck Frett’ (one for the spoonerists among you). He would have the last laugh, firing off four TD passes for a sweet success.
Despite his famous lineage, the son of ‘Micko’ was surplus to requirements for Páidí Ó Sé’s Kerry side, who were reigning All-Ireland champions when the Kingdom locked horns with Kildare in the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final.
However, O’Dwyer, who managed Ó Sé during his eight All-Ireland successes, would unfurl a secret weapon in the Croke Park semi-final – a jilted son of Kerry, and a proud son of ‘Micko’.
“I had good friends on that Kerry team, so it was never going to be a feather in my cap or a thing I would gloat about,” O’Dwyer Jnr said, after scoring three points for his adopted county in a famous win for the Lilywhites.
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