Neil Francis: 'It is time for Joey Carbery to change position - his career might depend on it'
Joey Carbery’s name did not feature in Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad – that he is excluded by injury again is a matter of regret.
The sporting gods do not grant exemption from the sickbay on talent alone.
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Nobody needs to be reminded of his athletic grace or superior footballing instinct. The boy’s gift is his ability to glide on the soles of his feet and to see things clearly and early where mere mortals are just about figuring them out.
That lithe figure begets the fact that he still operates out of the physique of an adolescent and his career has now faltered, maybe terminally, on the basis of how often – and easily – he gets injured. At the tender age of 24, Ireland – and quite possibly Munster – may just have to plan without him.
The position of out-half is repeatedly re-defined as the seasons roll. It does not matter what level or era you played in – it seems that an out-half is first in line for physical contact and at all stages, you just do not want your commander in chief stuck at the bottom of a ruck or tackling 20-stone forwards. The thing is once somebody gets around the corner, the first man up is usually your fly-half.
It was interesting to look at the stats for the 2019 Six Nations. It confirms what I’m saying. Johnny Sexton had to make around 33 tackles for the championship – more than any other back, except Bundee Aki. Owen Farrell made 42 (not all of them legal). Now maybe these two go looking for trouble and quite often Joe Schmidt would have lost his patience with his pivot because if you are at the bottom of a ruck, you can’t control the game.
If you are tackling big powerful forwards, who will try and hit you as hard as they can, there is an inevitability about the outcome. How many times have we seen Sexton go down after making a hit?
I played against Australia four times and on each occasion, Michael Lynagh was the Wallaby out-half. I reckon I got around the corner half a dozen times and yet Lynagh never put in a tackle – someone else always got to me first – it wasn’t in his job description. Lynagh was there to control the game, not tackle forwards.
Quite often it is the hits they take, not the tackles they make, that do the damage. Out-halves who take the ball right at the gain line are like car-chasing dogs – they have a finite life span, they’ll eventually take the big hit and that will be that. Taking the ball right at the gain line is high risk/high reward.
Quite often an out-half has to be emptied for the move to work. The 10 must hold onto the ball for as long as possible to commit a defence – if he releases too early the defence won’t react. The move works if the out-half ends up on the floor with two tacklers on him. Even something as simple as a wrap-around can be fatal if it’s anticipated. Quite often when Sexton loops behind he knows he has a big target on his jersey when, or if, he collects the return pass.
The position of out-half is one of the most dangerous in the modern game. Anytime the most important player on the pitch is in possession, the thinking is automatic – take him out and hurt him if you can.
Before Carbery arrived at Blackrock College he was a scrum-half and he then played on the SCT at full-back, subsequently playing most of his career at out-half. His peerless passing, GPS kicking and ability to ghost past the line, made it almost mandatory that he be the first receiver.
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However, in Leinster’s double-winning season of 2017/18, most of his standout performances came at full-back. Ross Byrne, if we all remember, got the starts if Johnny Sexton was unavailable. It precipitated a move south but the switch has been a disaster for Carbery, on the basis of having only played 17 games for them. He was the player they really craved and, when unavailable, it really hit them hard. It’s difficult to plan when your best player is gone.
In the 2018/19 Champions Cup, Carbery was simply sensational, particularly against Gloucester home and away. His performance in Kingsholm in the fifth pool game was a show-stopper. There should have been signs inside the ground ‘Caution - Magician at Work’.
Danny Cipriani, who for some reason has the British press eating out of his hand, must have been embarrassed by the gulf in class between the two out-halves. If he wasn’t, he should have been.
Munster now had an out-half who could do something special and who could orchestrate things brilliantly. Just when the clouds had cleared, Carbery got injured just before half-time in the quarter-final against Edinburgh and was replaced by Tyler Bleyendaal. The game was up against Saracens in the semi-final. We can only speculate what could have happened if Carbery played against Saracens. The Munster pack was subjugated to such a degree that the Messiah may also have been reduced to the role of interested bystander.
Whatever way Carbery gets crocked now is a matter for long-term planning – geared towards a preventative programme to halt continuous injury. I went on record to say that it was folly to bring him to Japan. He was not right – he was never right.
The first question is a fundamental reassessment of where to play him. If he keeps on getting injured while he plays at out-half, irrespective of how he gets injured, well then is it worth playing him there? Surely it would be better to have him on the field at full-back than on the physio table waiting to take his place again at half-back.
Injury profile is now a huge thing. You are of no value to a team if you are sidelined too often. Ronan O’Gara’s injury profile was exceptional. He only broke into the Munster side in the 2000 season and he played 240 games until 2013. O’Gara always seemed to be available for the big games and as a result, Munster could plan with certainty.
It’s a priceless commodity to be able to have your best player practically always available – Ronan, though, may have borrowed from Michael Lynagh’s job specification.
Even the much-maligned Ian Keatley picked up 180 Munster caps (compared to Sexton’s 163 for Leinster). Keatley may not have been rated but he always togged out and in his Irish provincial career bagged 1,935 points (Sexton 1,469). Durability – particularly at 10 - is a question of staying clear of dangerous traffic.
Carbery may be available to play in April but I think there would be a high probability of getting injured again. Ireland tour Australia for a Test series on July 4 and 11, which is a crazy time to stretch out the season. Pre-season will already be three weeks old – what purpose would it serve to let Carbery play for Munster or even bring him to Australia?
It’s January now. What cost a 6-9 month rehab programme from an outside specialist – maybe from the NFL or a horse whisperer who can put Carbery’s body in the best position to avoid injury and do it on a whole career basis.
The All Blacks have moved Beauden Barrett to full-back to stop him getting smashed up. A rethink on the best position for Carbery to get the most out of this special talent should be strongly considered... or maybe just submit to the inevitable.