McCarthy finally hitting the heights after taking longer run-up than most
McCarthy was Ireland’s stand-out performer, consistently effective in the contact zone, whether carrying or tackling.
That he’s possibly playing the best rugby of his life he attributes to an injury-free run and match fitness. “I’ve done some great work with Dan McFarland (Connacht forwards coach) . He’s really helped my game progress.”
Rugby suits McCarthy’s strength and stamina, though he is the first in his bloodline to play rugby and the sporting genes, such as they were, would also appear to hail from Coyle, who was a long distance runner. “He was very sporty, but apart from that, no. Kind of strange.”
McCarthy was born in London, but to a large extent developed in Cumbria, courtesy of a sports scholarship to Sedbergh College, alma mater to Will Greenwood and Will Carling, amongst others, from the age of 12.
In Newlands primary school, McCarthy had been an exceptional swimmer and runner, amongst other sports, including rugby, which he began playing at 10.The Sedbergh years were good years, so good that in the last of them, 1999-2000, they won the Rugby World Team of the Year award.
“We had a great team with Phil Dowson and James Simpson-Daniel. Sinbad was really our team. We used to just give him the ball at 10 and he’d score. It was ridiculous.”
Even more remarkably, McCarthy was a winger in his formative years.
“I was really tall, lanky and skinny. I played there until I was about 16, and then I kind of ballooned for some reason and got put into the secondrow. I was very out of shape so I used to be a bit of a ruck inspector, turning up to the ruck as the scrumhalf was passing the ball away.”
From Sedbergh, he went to Brunel University, though deferred studying sports science within a year after a successful trial with Wasps saw him brought into their academy, before he was given a full-time contract in his second of three years there.
It’s been rugby ever since, and “have boots, will travel” became McCarthy’s motto as he went in search of game time.
McCarthy played under Nigel Melville and then Warren Gatland, who converted him into a six, but with Lawrence Dallaglio, Paul Volley and Joe Worseley in the back-row, he left Wasps to join Connacht in the 2003-04 season.
“They (Wasps) wanted me to stay but I felt I was at the age (21) where I needed to be playing.”
His lack of game time at Wasps was also as a result of flying over for Ireland Under-21 training camps.
“Then a few English lads weren’t released by their clubs and I got a call to say ‘Do you want to go to the (Under-21) World Cup?’ At that age, you just want to play at the highest level you can, and that opportunity came and I took it.”
By dint of going to those finals in South Africa in 2002 with England, did he think he might be burning his bridges with Ireland?
“I wasn’t really thinking about it. I just wanted to play at the highest level I could and progress my career as much as I could.”
Similarly, with Damien Browne and Andrew Farley the first-choice Connacht secondrows, and Swift at blindside, McCarthy upped sticks again to join Newcastle for three years.
“Newcastle is a great place, great city. Once I signed there, they began signing big names like Owen Finnegan. But in my first two years I ended up playing nearly every game so it was great to be getting the experience of playing.”
He was voted the supporters player of the year in 2005-06, but in his third season there Rob Andrew left to work with the RFU and McCarthy was one of those who fell out of favour with the new regime headed by former Academy director John Fletcher.