Tony Ward: 'Jack Carty is improving with every game - he will be a real alternative to Sexton in 2020'
Just over three years ago Connacht under Pat Lam delivered a game-plan and style of rugby to lift the PRO12 that was quite simply mesmeric.
Yes, they had an inventive coach alongside an inspirational captain in John Muldoon, but the key pieces in that ‘total rugby’ jigsaw were Aly Muldowney and AJ MacGinty at linking lock and out-half respectively.
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Both moved to pastures new the following season. Replacing them was never going to be easy.
Ultan Dillane remained in situ as Quinn Roux, among others, looked to replace Muldowney but by way of a different, more physically driven skill-set.
So too at 10, but here the potential by way of similarities between Jack Carty and MacGinty was clear and obvious.
Although clearly feeling his way, the only glaring deficiency between the new arrival and his predecessor was in goal-kicking return. The former Marist College star had all the bits and pieces but for whatever reason the inability to nail his kicks was becoming an issue.
I would have an affinity in so far as I had occupied the same position for the bulk of my playing career. So when in search of an out-half made of the right stuff, it is to the reaction when the radar fails to register that I look for constructive guidance.
Carty shipped criticism and rightly so for failing to translate territory and possession into points but as heir apparent to MacGinty, the case was open and shut. If he could overcome the goal-kicking yips then his physical skill-set and mental resilience would see an exciting new star set to emerge for Connacht initially, and beyond that game-time and experience would see him develop as a matter of course.
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Well, it has – and Saturday in Shizuoka (8.15am Irish time) this outstanding all-round sportsman runs out for only his second Ireland start and first on the biggest stage of all.
Just six weeks or so ago he was, at best, number four in the pecking order to Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne.
Injury to Carbery allied to a tour de force in game management against the Welsh saw him leapfrog Byrne (perhaps the biggest victim of the Twickenham massacre the previous week) into the pivotal position of shadow 10 to Sexton irrespective of the opposition.
That may well change in the coming weeks with Carbery set to return to action at some stage Saturday but as a fully-signed-up member of the Carty admiration society, I, like Joe Schmidt, recognise the Carty potential for what it is. He is more like Carbery than Sexton, while Byrne is more a mirror image of Sexton.
As a goalkicker, the new Ireland 10 has mastered the art with far greater consistency. He brings too a vast reservoir of skill and ability by way of his ecumenical underage career at the highest levels in Gaelic football, soccer and, of course, rugby.
He is a risk-taker but an astute risk-taker with the ability to chip short and regather perhaps the most lethal string to his bow. Much like Carbery, he is no slouch at taking it up to the line either.
This is a mighty test but if and when he comes through, as I believe he will, Andy Farrell will have another very real alternative to Sexton going forward.
His line-kicking too is of the 'squeeze every last inch' variety. Occasionally he gets it wrong and fails to cross the whitewash but in general he delivers touchline ground to its maximum. Physical in the tackle although different in style to Sexton, he radiates a calm demeanour of the Conor Murray school of chill.
He is difficult to rattle, which in itself is a massive plus and precisely why missed kicks at goal seldom faze him. Piece all that together and he who seldom gets it wrong looks to be right on the money yet again.
Looking at the bigger picture, we are in a good place. Probably even better than Schmidt had envisaged ahead of the pool opener.
Public expectation is rising but so too is confidence and morale within the squad and it can only be the latter that fuels the former.
The strength of the squad to take on the host nation surprised me but it in itself is a statement of intent from this Irish management.
And I too buy that. Two wins in six days against the other top teams in the pool and, as Willie Duggan used to say, "we’re suckin’ diesel".
With the exception of Sexton for Carty, probably Bundee Aki for Chris Farrell (outstanding against the Scots) and I suspect Jack Conan for Rhys Ruddock in reserve, this has the look of the match-day squad set to face the Springboks in three weeks' time.
Injuries will of course play a part but with Andrew Conway and hopefully Robbie Henshaw champing at the bit, even at this distance a quarter-final that I would have predicted a hurdle too high prior to RWC 2019 getting under way has the feel of increasing manageability about it.
The performance in Yokohama last Sunday turned the clock back to Twickenham and the Grand Slam decider in 2018.
It is immensely satisfying to win any competitive game at international level but to do so in the manner we did on that arctic St Patrick’s Day 18 months ago was all but revisited against the Scots.
The Grand Slam was big but the World Cup even bigger again. As one who, since the draw was made, has had grave doubts as to our ability to break that quarter-final hoodoo, Yokohama has provided much new food for thought. Expect Saturday's performance to mirror that of eight days ago in its dogged keep-ball intensity.
Take Carty and Ireland to make it two out of two as the race to the Oita Stadium on October 19 gathers even greater momentum.