A timely comeback for Leinster’s Joe McCarthy after frustrating injury

Injured at the beginning of the year, the secondrow hopes to nail down a place with Leinster

It has been a season of ifs and buts for Joe McCarthy. But the Leinster secondrow has decided to take it more stoically than second guessing. Drafted into Andy Farrell’s Six Nations squad earlier this year, injury put paid to thoughts of a glorious spring and a Grand Slam.

Having come off the Irish bench against Australia in the Autumn Series, McCarthy had earned himself the right to a dream big in 2023.

Then, in February the lock was ruled out for two months. The wicked part was, having been released to build up game time with Leinster, he suffered an ill-timed injury.

The place of the 21-year-old passed to Ulster secondrow Kieran Treadwell, who travelled to Rome: Treadwell to the Amphitheatre and McCarthy into theatre for ankle surgery.

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But the 22-year-old is a level-headed sort.

“I suppose you can’t really plan too far ahead especially in rugby it’s kind of crazy whatever happens,” he says. “When you start looking too far ahead, plan too far ahead you’ll pick up an injury and it will change how your season looks.

“It was definitely frustrating but if you are injured there is no point in dwelling on it too much. Missing out you just keep the head down knowing eventually you will get your opportunity. I suppose it is a bit deflating.”

In another time and place McCarthy could have been turning out in USA colours. Born in New York, he lived there for three years before the family returned home and Blackrock College took over.

Not so long ago he was playing with Dublin University and there is still the look of a raw-boned teenager about him. But Leinster like what they see and with two or three games remaining, there is a summer ahead which could shape McCarthy’s career.

Right now, though, it is Munster and he is hoping for a run in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

“I suppose you can take a positive out of it [injury] maybe. You get a bit of rest,” he says. “But I just want to play as much as possible to be honest. I feel like I’ve a lot of areas to improve and want to play all the time. It is where you get better, playing proper games so yeah, I suppose you can look at it as a benefit, a bit of time to develop off the pitch. You have to keep developing the athleticism, but I think the best thing for me is to get out playing.”

Looking at the out and out secondrow players in Leinster and Ireland as well as those like Ulster’s Iain Henderson and Munster’s Tadhg Beirne who can also play backrow, and game time is a competitive area.

While it is offset somewhat by an aggressive rotation policy and that Leinster currently form the bulk of the Irish team, opportunities to grab a shirt do arise.

McCarthy also has the ear of coach Leo Cullen, who also played in the secondrow and the experience of Seán O’Brien, not so long retired, for contact training.

“Leo has played with so many different players. Even when he went over to Leicester, they were hugely successful – they still are. So, you definitely pick up things from Leo and especially at the lineout because lineout calling was his thing,” he says.

“Probably the area we are all focusing on is being good around the contact areas. Being physical in contact around the breakdown. Towards the knock-out games, that’s where you see those games won and lost. Teams and athletes get bigger so one v one contacts are a big focus.

“We try to push the boundaries. But I think we are very smart in how we pick and choose our moments. We don’t try to go outside the system.”

It is timely for McCarthy, about whom Leinster and Ireland are excited. He is a well known quantity having come through the Irish Under-20s and was one of five uncapped players picked for Ireland’s tour to New Zealand last summer.

Hopes are he’ll be back in an extended Irish squad this summer for a peek in at the World Cup in France. This week against Munster and the final run to the Champions Cup final could shape that.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times