Sinéad Kissane: 'Carbery shows star quality in turning setbacks into comebacks'
Joey Carbery walked onto the pitch at Murrayfield yesterday almost unnoticed. This is a significant week for the 23-year-old. It began with the unexpected drum-roll on Tuesday that he'd signed up for another two years with Munster which keeps him contracted with the province until June 2022.
This had the resounding effect of shooting down any lingering notion that Carbery was merely counting down the days until a return to Leinster. Then came the booster yesterday that Carbery was back from a hamstring injury in time to play in Munster's Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final with Edinburgh today. No wonder he walked with a lightness onto the pitch at Murrayfield yesterday for a light run-out with the team and a final kicking practice.
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It's 49 days since Carbery last played and that was at Murrayfield for Ireland's Six Nations game against Scotland when he replaced Johnny Sexton after 23 minutes. That game showed there's a trend developing in the career of Carbery.
When he threw a pass that was intercepted by Finn Russell five minutes after he came on which led to a try for Scotland, Carbery would have been forgiven for wanting the ground to open and swallow him up. But he did what his Munster boss Johann van Graan often references: he "reset".
Lofty adjectives like mercurial aren't just reserved for the Scotland out-half: Carbery's break inside Ireland's half followed by a run and a floating pass to Keith Earls to touch down for Ireland's third try was a sweet riposte to that first-half mishap.
"The great thing about him now is playing consistently, he's trusting his instincts," Ronan O'Gara said after that game in the Virgin Media Sport studio. "I got slagged off 12 months ago for comparing him to Beauden Barrett but I genuinely see that star ability in him. He's 23 years of age, imagine what he's going to be like in three years' time if he continues his progress?"
Carbery's knack of responding to setbacks has been notable. After struggling with his place-kicking in the defeat to Castres in the Heineken Champions Cup in December, Carbery went on to nail every single place-kick since for Munster - kicking 20 out of 20 in a row in Europe and the PRO14.
He kicked five from five in the each of the post-Christmas wins over Leinster and Connacht, seven from seven in the win over Gloucester in Kingsholm and three from three in the Round 6 pool game against Exeter Chiefs at Thomond Park. From inconsistency one day in Castres, to a resounding consistency.
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It was after that win over Exeter that Van Graan said: "He is a special man and a special player. I'm proud to be his coach." It's not often you hear a head coach say those kind of words about a player.
The head coach's relationship with his number 10 is one of the most important in any team. And anyone who saw Inpho's Dan Sheridan's photograph of Carbery and Van Graan hugging after that win for Ireland over Scotland would have been struck by the genuine warmth between the pair.
As with Tadhg Beirne, Carbery has been everything Munster hoped he would be. His vision, his skill, his understated confidence, his attitude, his buy-in which has been reflected in the strong support for him from Munster fans. The draw about Carbery is how he also opens up the game for his team-mates. Remember his exposing grubber in behind the defence for Andrew Conway to score a try in the win over Gloucester in January? As O'Gara commented in a tweet: "Simply stunning JC.. capacity to scan on the run and execute belongs to very few.. #special". Carbery also scored two tries in a 26-point haul in what was his - and indeed Munster's - best performance of the season. "If you're a 10, you're going to take some criticism but we knew from day one that he's here to learn and he's here to be part of a team," Van Graan said that night in Kingsholm.
Of course, the real thrill about Carbery committing to Munster to 2022 isn't just how he's performed so far this season but the possibilities and hope of what's coming around the corner with a talent like his.
It doesn't seem that long ago since Carbery was sitting in a press conference room in Carton House last summer admitting "it was a tough four or five weeks" when news of his decision to leave Leinster and join Munster was announced.
His decision to sign a new contract with a few months still to go in his first season with Munster is as good a validation that Van Graan and Munster would want from one of their key players.
There's the argument that the announcement of Sexton's new contract with the IRFU and Leinster until June 2021 hardly went unnoticed in the Carbery household and any blowback in terms of disappointment Leinster would have felt with Carbery's decision to leave but the out-half seems to have fit into his new home as well as any Munster fan could have hoped for.
Van Graan spoke this week about how desperate Carbery was to be fit for today. An allowance must be given for the fact that he's just back from injury but Carbery could be the difference today because he's different to every other player on the pitch.
This is a Munster team with international players in it who will be hurting from how the Six Nations went. They'll look to deliver their own riposte. Setbacks? We know how Carbery has shown to play that card.