Irishman in a league of his own

 

It says more about the game in Ireland than the player. When Brian Carney collects his fifth cap for Ireland today against Samoa in Windsor Park many will wonder why he has not won more.

Carney is the player that rugby league aristocrats Wigan have embraced and said "come play with us". He has been chosen as a possible replacement for Jason Robinson, one of the outstanding wingers of his generation. Robinson, who Clive Woodward recently called into the English Rugby Union squad, quit rugby league at the age of 25 with 184 tries from 301 matches, claiming he had nothing left to achieve in the game. Respect.

Carney is Cork born, Wicklow bred, a Clongowes Wood and UCD graduate. His youth is steeped in GAA and rugby union and his future is shimmering. As sporting divides go, the 24-year-old has effortlessly made the crossing, with the World Cup and an Irish team ranked fourth the next chapter of a speeding career which is just three years old. That's how long it took for the winger to convince one of the shrewdest clubs in the world that he is a talent worth feting, worth offering a three-year contract to.

"There's no way you can compare me to Jason Robinson," he declares instantly. "He was unique. I'm just going to try and develop as my own player. There is no way I can say I'm going to be another Jason Robinson."

Just returned to the Post House Forte Hotel in Belfast after an afternoon's training, Carney realises how fast his life has moved from student to professional footballer. Logic tells him that in a regular life he should have completed his Master's Degree and put to work his expertise in business and legal studies for some fat corporation. Instead his day is over at 4.00 p.m., relaxation a part of his daily routine. As a Wigan striker and sometime second row, Carney's role is not to take pressure, but to give it.

"I was asked to have a go and see if I liked the game after playing a match with the Dublin Blues (a local amateur side). I loved the game and went from there to playing with the Irish Students. Everything since then has happened so fast," he says.

"I've had to play in the second row this year. I'm too small to play that position but I can fill the gap. It's a lot easier playing second row league than union if you are a small guy."

The memories of playing Gaelic football for Wicklow junior side Valleymount are crystal clear in his short term memory. It was not so long ago he was kicking a ball around the parish. Boarding school shaped him for university and at 22 he accidentally met Brian Corrigan. The founder of Ireland's first amateur rugby league team The Dublin Blues opened a door for Carney and he stepped into another world.

"When I was growing up in county Wicklow as a young lad I played Gaelic football, just the usual thing you do growing up in a small village. Then when I went to school I didn't really take rugby too seriously, didn't think I'd end up doing it like this and it becoming so much part of my life.

"I just liked the game. I like the structure of league, it's a harder, it's an in-your-face game. I get the chance to get the ball quite a bit and become involved. Even Martin Johnson (England's rugby union captain) was quoted during the week as saying that he could have a good game and barely touch the ball. But you couldn't get away with that in league. I'm not saying it's better. They are two different games but that's just the way league is."

From a Sunday afternoon guest appearance against the touring English Carney moved seamlessly to the Irish student side as a raw but eye-catching talent. The Irish

selectors thought so too, and by October of the same year he was asked to play for Ireland against France. He jumped at the chance and found himself standing on the pitch, a shamrock on his jersey and the legendary Shaun Edwards standing beside him.

"Brian (Corrigan) asked me to play one weekend to make up numbers against an English team who were in Dublin. After one game I was hooked. Sure, it's been real quick, a real quick rise and I've a lot of learning to do yet. I'm 24. I hope to keep progressing. I hope to keep learning as a player, but I never could have dreamed that this would happen."

For the 1999 season Gateshead Thunder kept up the snappy tempo of his career, signing him up for his first full season as a professional before he moved on to Hull for this season. A blink of an eye later, when Robinson declared that he had sussed the game, Wigan came in.

"Wigan are not just one of the biggest sides in Britain, they're one of the biggest in the world. If you like, they are the Manchester United of league," says Carney.

The World Cup will be viewed as not only a shop window for clubs but a sounding board for the public as the game attempts to sell itself in a union stronghold. The match in Windsor Park against Samoa is followed by games against Scotland and the New Zealand Maoris in Tolka Park.

The presence of both Terry O'Connor and Gary Connolly from Wigan will ensure that their new signing will not feel isolated. Other stars such as Luke Ricketson, Danny Williams and Kevin Campion, recruited from Australia's National Rugby league, means that the Irish team, while being largely second generation, is first class. That's why the side is so highly rated for the tournament.

"I know that this is a well-worn cliche but we really have to look at each match," says Carney. "If we look at who we are going to play after the group stages then we could easily end up with egg on our chins. Sure we hope to win the group, but we'll be happy just to get out of it."

Initially there was apprehension about the commitment of players, but very quickly those fears dissipated, with a genuine pride replacing any suggestions that the granny rule automatically attracted players who were more interested in self promotion than the team.

Several players, including Great Britain internationals Chris Joynt and Ryan Sheridan, could have walked onto the England team. Joynt played in the 1995 World Cup final for England before family connections in Mayo pulled him towards the Irish.

"As a professional the fear of losing increases," says Carney. "But the will to win doesn't diminish at all. The goal is to win our group and then we'll see. Our team is committed."

Who knows then? A game at Old Trafford on November 25th for the World Cup final doesn't appear to be such a wild dream.