Tuesday 23 July 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Carbery on the right path to challenge Sexton's place'

Protégé will quickly become a rival if he can replicate Gloucester form on a regular basis

Joey Carbery (r) has gone from Johnny Sexton’s understudy to rival for the Irish No 10 shirt. Photo: Sportsfile
Joey Carbery (r) has gone from Johnny Sexton’s understudy to rival for the Irish No 10 shirt. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Johnny Sexton may have to reinforce his mantelpiece after collecting yet another award in London on Monday night.

Since signing off on November with the World Rugby Player of the Year gong, he's had the monkey suit on almost as often as his rugby boots being honoured for his annus mirabilis.

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Jonathan Sexton and Joey Carbery during their recent club clash. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton and Joey Carbery during their recent club clash. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

For all that he appreciates the recognition for his achievements, the Ireland out-half won't be fooled into thinking last year's success will guarantee him anything in 2019.

The start to the New Year has brought about an all-too-familiar pre-Six Nations struggle with injury and Leinster yesterday confirmed that he won't face Wasps on Sunday.

With Ireland's pre-Six Nations trip to Portugal likely to rule him out of next Friday's Leinster v Scarlets game in the Guinness PRO14, he'll have missed more than a month's rugby before the clash with England on February 2.

And, during that vacuum, the two young pretenders to his throne have been making their moves.

We last saw Sexton don his boots on a bad-tempered night at Thomond Park on December 29 - a defeat that led to a national debate about his captaincy.

Despite an apparent lack of control in the first half, Sexton appeared after half-time and drove his team into a position where an unlikely win against 14 men suddenly became a live prospect.

On the hour-mark, he was withdrawn. Afterwards, despite being seen applying ice to his leg, the out-half and his coach Leo Cullen said they were following the pre-match plan to give Ciarán Frawley a run.

Sexton hasn't played since due to knee tendon issue with Ross Byrne performing well in his absence, but it is the man who played opposite him in Limerick who will be occupying Schmidt's thoughts.

A feature of the Christmas derby defeat in Limerick was the running battle Sexton engaged in with Joey Carbery.

Up until now, the duo appeared to have something of a master and apprentice relationship with Carbery serving as the Dubliner's understudy for the national team and as a partner in crime in the Leinster backline. Carbery's move to Munster changed all that. It is almost as if Sexton is conscious of the Irish love affair with a battle for the No 10 shirt.

As an up-and-comer, he engaged and enraged his now friend Ronan O'Gara by making a point of getting in the Munster legend's face, while he has been known to make thunderous hits on his opposite numbers to lay down physical markers and remind them of their place. Carbery left Thomond Park that night full in the knowledge that he has Sexton's attention.

Whether it was the 33-year-old flinging him to the ground and standing over him, roaring or one of the other in-game incidents that lit up social media, there was no doubt that the Ireland No 1 was determined to get in his opposite number's head.

The 23-year-old was coming off the back of a difficult night in Castres, but his response to that performance has been hugely impressive.

On Friday night in Gloucester, he put in his best performance in a Munster jersey - scoring 26 points and running the show brilliantly.

Before the game, former England international Austin Healey joked that it was time to replace Sexton with Carbery for the England game. The insinuation that the move would weaken Joe Schmidt's side.

By the time Carbery was taken off with his team home and hosed, the comments didn't seem so humorous.

Until now, Carbery has been definitively No 2. He was handed a starting opportunity against Australia last summer and has worn the No 10 shirt against Fiji, Italy and the USA but until now it has been safe to assume that if Sexton is fit, he starts.

That remains the case going into this Six Nations, but for the first time since Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan were ruled out of the equation, there is a feeling that an injury to the No 1 out-half would not be catastrophic to the Irish cause.

The World Player of the Year remains first choice and is likely to hold that position through to the World Cup, but Schmidt will hope that the arrival of a rival will drive Sexton to even higher standards.

In 2017, he went on the Lions tour talking himself down and almost acknowledging his place beneath Owen Farrell in the pecking order but finished it the first-choice out-half.

Carbery is a confident young man who will believe that he can force his way into a more influential role at international level.

The competitor within Sexton will relish the challenge of seeing him off.

And the results can only be good for Schmidt and Ireland in this all-important year.

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