Tuesday 16 July 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Joey Carbery closes gap on Johnny Sexton to set up new outhalf rivalry'

Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Allan Dell of Scotland as he offloads a pass to team-mate Jacob Stockdale, who went on to score his side's second try from this move, during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at the BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Allan Dell of Scotland as he offloads a pass to team-mate Jacob Stockdale, who went on to score his side's second try from this move, during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Scotland and Ireland at the BT Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Keith Earls scores Ireland’s third try against Scotland yesterday after being brilliantly set up by Joey Carbery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I have seen the future of the Ireland outhalf position and his name is Joey Carbery. The question is whether the future may already have arrived.

The key moment of a frenetic, chaotic, nervy match arrived in the 55th minute. After a deflected pass hopped awkwardly in front of him just inside the Irish half, Carbery spotted the tiniest of gaps, burst forward, shrugged off the challenge of two Scottish forwards and hared towards the line. As the cover converged upon him, the Munster man floated a perfect pass out to Keith Earls who scored the most important try of the game.

It was a special moment from a special player, a bravura piece of flair and improvisation of the sort we've come to expect from Carbery. But at Murrayfield he also excelled at the more quotidian side of the game. The penalty he slotted to put Ireland beyond the reach of a converted try 12 minutes from time was in that borderline territory designed to expose nervousness in the kicker. He made it look routine.

The calmness and control exhibited by the 23-year-old after being called in to replace Johnny Sexton in the 23rd minute was all the more remarkable considering a nightmarish start when his intercepted pass led to Scotland's only try.

It was Carbery's last moment of uncertainty. Never before has he looked so much an international number ten. It's clear that his move to Munster has been a masterstroke, providing an invaluable crash course in the realities of top-class outhalf play. Thomond Park has been Carbery's equivalent of those mountaintop monasteries from which Kung Fu heroes emerge instructed, refreshed and ready to take on the world.

Irish rugby has seen some notable outhalf rivalries in the past, Ward v Campbell, Humphreys v O'Gara, O'Gara v Sexton. Sexton v Carbery will be up there with any of them.

The youngster's chance came after Sexton had been forced out of the game by a series of hits which, if not entirely illegal, certainly disclosed a desire to make the tackle as hurtful as possible without incurring official sanction. Such treatment has become increasingly common. You sense that opposition teams believe Sexton is being worn down by injury to an extent which makes him a hugely tempting target.

Dropping the World Player of the Year might seem unthinkable yet Sexton's battered condition combined with Carbery's flowering has closed, or maybe even eliminated, the gap between the two. Can Joe Schmidt really afford to omit a player of Carbery's attacking gifts from a team not exactly coming down with flair at the moment?

Yesterday Ireland avoided going into freefall but it would be a stretch to portray this victory as a resounding instant redemption. Scotland are not in the same class as England, being dogged by a flakiness which underlined the importance of the basic virtues instilled into Ireland by Schmidt.

Gregor Townsend's team made twice as many handling errors as Ireland and squandered numerous opportunities through forward passes, wrong options and indiscipline. For all their energy and inventiveness, there's something not quite kosher about Scotland.

By contrast, Ireland's defensive stand near their own line in the final minutes of the first half, which saw the home side leave empty-handed after 20-plus phases, showcased Schmidt values at their best. It was a masterpiece of resilience that evoked memories of similar rearguard actions against the All Blacks.

A few personal points were proven. Rob Kearney might have spilt a couple of high balls but his incisive running was one of Ireland's main attacking weapons, one piercing foray setting up the position from which Carbery and Earls were to profit so memorably.

Tadhg Furlong and Peter O'Mahony returned to their traditional rampaging ways, while Seán O'Brien's effectiveness with ball in hand showed that a fit Tullow Tank should always be one of the first names on an Irish team-sheet.

Jacob Stockdale's try showed that there is no more irresistible wing in world rugby.

Like many of the big man's five-pointers, his huge pace and power made it look a lot easier than it was. He'll be just as pleased about a couple of pieces of excellent defending which should help exorcise the ghost of last week's give-away to Elliot Daly.

All is not entirely rosy. The prosaic nature of the Chris Farrell-Bundee Aki centre partnership made you dream of what might be achieved by a Garry Ringrose-Robbie Henshaw combination. Conor Murray's passing or kicking still seem slightly off.

The moment when, despite the exhortations of Keith Earls, he failed to run the ball in under the posts after being gifted a try by Tommy Seymour was an odd lapse into complacency. He hasn't been himself so far this year.

The 'answering the critics' narrative will have to be put on hold until we see how Ireland do away to Wales on March 16. That will be a significant test. The most interesting thing about the games against France and Italy may be the light they shed on the Carbery-Sexton battle for the number ten jersey.

The battle has begun in earnest. May the best man win.

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