Sunday 22 September 2019

Johnny Sexton's understudies get their chance to stake claim as Carbery injury throws plans out the window

Carbery recovery concern opens World Cup door

Out-halves Jack Carty and Ross Byrne going through their paces ahead of the recent World Cup warm-up clash with Italy. Photo: Sportsfile
Out-halves Jack Carty and Ross Byrne going through their paces ahead of the recent World Cup warm-up clash with Italy. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Mike Tyson famously said that everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Joe Schmidt has been working on a selection strategy for this pre-World Cup window for months now and then after 49 minutes of the opening warm-up game, Joey Carbery went down with an ankle injury and everything went out the window.

With Carbery considered touch-and-go to make the plane, there is a need to take Johnny Sexton out of the firing line while belatedly getting some much-needed experience into the next cabs off the rank - Jack Carty and Ross Byrne.

Assistant coach Richie Murphy offered no assurances to Carbery yesterday as he considered the decision to bring him to Japan with so little training under his belt.

Sexton sat out training yesterday and, while he may yet be involved off the bench on Saturday against England at Twickenham, it seems more likely that his understudies will get the opportunity to shine.

Both could yet play a big role at the World Cup. Considering neither of them has started an international, there is a pressing need to get them out there.

Byrne appears favourite to get the nod, while Carty could yet start one of the two games against Wales.

Given the concern over Carbery, Ireland may restrict Sexton to just one game to get him up and running for the all-important opener against Scotland on September 22.

Between them, the pair have amassed 139 minutes of rugby at this level; Byrne winning two caps off the bench against Italy and the United States and Carty coming on against Italy twice, France and Wales.

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Schmidt may regret not getting Byrne into the fray at some stage of the three-Test series against Australia in 2018, but his hands have been tied to a certain extent by the amount of game-time he invested in Paddy Jackson in the first two years of this World Cup cycle before the now-London Irish out-half was taken out of the equation.

That left him with Sexton as the only established No 10 and he needed to get as much time into Carbery's legs as possible. It was an imperfect scenario and it leaves him with two vastly inexperienced options.

That doesn't mean they are bad options. Carty is an increasingly impressive leader in a good Connacht team and has acquitted himself well during his limited opportunity.

Having seen off Carbery at Leinster, Byrne has become an excellent back-up to Sexton and has a formidable kicking game, a calm assurance and knack for good decision-making.

He is, perhaps, the most like-for-like replacement for Sexton and if he demonstrates a capacity to run Schmidt's game-plan on Saturday, he'll put himself firmly in the frame.

Murphy confirmed yesterday that Ireland are leaning towards bringing five half-backs to Japan and, while he was upbeat about Carbery's progress, he said Ireland may have to dip into their depth chart if needed.

"It's definitely made us think and work out what the best route forward is for us," he said of Carbery's injury.

"We can't go into a World Cup with a situation where we've only got Johnny as, maybe, our main No 10, and other guys who haven't had exposure at that level. We can't do that.

"These three games are an opportunity in order to get guys some game-time, and an opportunity to sort of stake a claim for a spot in that squad."

"Unfortunately that's been taken away from Joey; it's out of his hands now. So what can he do? Well, he has to get himself fit and show and give confidence to the coaches that he's ready to play."

"But it is a difficult situation for Joey because his first game could be Scotland and we mightn't have seen a hell of a lot of him in training before.

Control

"So in some ways it's come out of Joey's control in relation to staking a claim. We're very lucky, we've come across three guys sitting in there behind Johnny, the experienced one, that are competing hard.

"It wasn't too long ago when Joey and Ross were competing against each other in Leinster for the spot, where Ross was getting in more times than not because Joey was playing No 15," Murphy added.

"We've a lot of faith in Ross and Jack. They bring slightly different strengths. Ross' organisation and ability to run the team is really strong.

"Jack plays lovely sort of free ball and organises well. He's great at spotting space behind, and is also quite quick when he gets through the line.

"Those two in particular give us different options and we just have to work out what it actually is we need for the squad and what's best for the individual in relation to game-time to get them ready for the World Cup.

"But it's also what's best for the rest of the players in the team and what kind of a No 10 we need."

With just three games between now and the World Cup and Carbery side-lined, the pressure is on to find the answer to that equation.

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