Cian Tracey: 'Jack Carty has edge over Ross Byrne for World Cup out-half role'
The tale of Stephen Donald's World Cup journey in 2011 will forever highlight the importance of squad depth, particularly at out-half.
Joe Schmidt would have watched the recent European Cup action through his fingers and it didn't take long for the memories of Donald's exploits to come flooding back.
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Donald started the All Blacks' World Cup campaign as fourth-choice out-half, before injuries to Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden opened the door for him to kick the winning points in the final.
After last weekend's exploits, Joey Carbery and Jack Carty followed Johnny Sexton to the treatment room, which meant that come Monday morning, all three of the out-halves who featured during the Six Nations were unavailable.
Sexton's injury profile is well-documented, while Carbery's troublesome hamstring injury is a cause for concern in a World Cup year, which reignited the debate about how Schmidt will go about his half-back selection.
Back in 2015, he opted for two scrum-halves and three out-halves with Ian Madigan also covering nine. Carbery, who has played scrum-half in his underage days, may be asked to do the same this year.
Given John Cooney's ability to slot in at out-half, there is an argument to be made for Schmidt to go with three nines and two 10s this time around, but with the growing concerns over Sexton and Carbery's fitness, it now seems like a very unnecessary risk to take just two out-halves to Japan.
Cooney has benefited hugely from moving to Ulster where he confidently runs the game-plan in a French 'petit général' style, with his goal-kicking (76.47pc success rate in the PRO14) particularly strong.
That said, he only played 37 minutes in four games at scrum-half during the Six Nations. It would take a spate of injuries for the 28-year-old to end up at out-half - a position that has become less and less familiar to him.
Instead, it will be up to Jack Carty and Ross Byrne to scrap it out for the third spot on the plane and, right now, the Connacht man is in pole position.
Going into the last weekend, Carty was the form Irish out-half in the country as he returned to the Sportsground after a positive Six Nations with his confidence levels sky high.
The 26-year-old has had to stay patient for recognition on the international stage but having added more strings to his bow, he is increasingly looking like a more rounded out-half.
Carty spent last summer working with Eric Elwood on his kicking game - something he recently admitted he should have done sooner.
The results speak for themselves, particularly from the tee as Carty's PRO14 kicking stats suggest, with a success rate of 80.7pc. He also offers a fresh running threat on the back of his renewed confidence, but it was telling that he was limited to so little game-time during the Six Nations.
Carty played just 31 minutes in his three appearances, which included an all-too-brief cameo off the bench in Cardiff despite the result already being beyond doubt. That would suggest that he still has some way to go before earning Schmidt's full trust and his chances of doing so were not helped by Connacht not competing in the Champions Cup this season.
Byrne has even more ground to make up after being overlooked for the Six Nations squad as he has still only played 72 minutes of two November Tests last year. The 23-year-old didn't exactly do a lot wrong to be usurped by Carty in the first place. Instead, it was the Connacht man's form that saw him earn his first Ireland caps.
Byrne's kick-passing game is outstanding and given Schmidt's penchant for a strong kicking game, that is a major plus for the Leinster man.
He showed incredible nerve to slot the match-winning penalty against Ulster, particularly because his standing foot was cramping, but Byrne will be disappointed by his earlier two missed shots at goal.
Compared to Carty, Byrne's kicking stats in the league are at 74.51pc, which is an area he will be eager to improve before the end of the season.
Some questions hang over his ability to control games at the highest level, particularly after last weekend when Leinster lost their way a bit, but stepping into Sexton's boots is no easy task, and by and large Byrne has done it well.
Cooney is highly unlikely to ever play out-half for Ireland ahead of Carty or Byrne and that's before we mention Tyler Bleyendaal, who recently became officially Irish-qualified or Ian Madigan, who is going well with Bristol and could be called upon in case of emergency. The final two months of the season will be crucial in determining who travels to Japan as Ireland's third out-half.
Right now, Carty is ahead of Byrne in that regard, but as Stephen Donald taught us, never underestimate the importance of having a reliable fourth number 10 ready to step in when the stakes are highest.