Champions Cup: Leinster lock Joe McCarthy looks forward to playing key role against Toulouse

No longer a fringe player, the 23-year-old says this season’s progress to the Champions Cup final ‘means a little more’

If there was one moment that encapsulated how Leinster finally subdued La Rochelle and Will Skelton – the man who, including his time with Saracens, had been ogre-like against them in two lost finals, a semi-final and a quarter-final – it came in the 79th minute of the redemptory 40-13 quarter-final win at the Aviva Stadium six weeks ago.

Ronan O’Gara’s team were seeking a consolation try from their eighth of nine visits to the Leinster 22, after kicking another penalty to the corner. Replacement hooker Quentin Lespiaucq-Brettes threw to Grégory Alldritt at the tail and as the ball was airborne Joe McCarthy was already sweeping from the front of the lineout. He first grabbed Alldritt and then reached octopus-like on to Lespiaucq-Brettes after the ball had been transferred to the hooker. Then Teddy Iribaren, seeing the danger, jumped on to McCarthy and tugged furiously at him.

But with Ross Molony clinging on to McCarthy, the lock held on and the maul collapsed to earn Leinster a turnover scrum to a huge roar from the capacity Aviva crowd. McCarthy made a point of wrestling the ball from Alldritt on the deck before standing up and triumphantly holding it aloft in his bear-like right paw, as if parading his catch. Cue a scuffle. McCarthy and Leinster had made a statement at the climax of a statement win.

Big Young Joe was to have been Leinster’s answer to Big Bad Will two years ago and last year, but in their different ways both finals had come just too soon for him.


He was a 21-year-old member of the Leinster Academy and had played just eight games for the province when named on the bench in the final against La Rochelle in Marseilles two years ago. Although only given the last four minutes, and curiously just 13 minutes in three Champions Cup knockout games, those appearances testified to the hopes that the Leinster management had that McCarthy could quickly become the home-grown heir to Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn and Scott Fardy.

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“I’d only made my debut in January that year so I hadn’t really thought I’d be playing in the Champions Cup or in a final. It was kind of surreal at the time. I feel very lucky to be in a final again because it’s not easy to win those or get to that position again. Once we’d lost that, you don’t know how long it will be until you get another opportunity so I feel very lucky to get another chance to go again.”

McCarthy made his first European start against Racing 92 in last season’s pool stages and he would assuredly have been afforded a bigger role for both Leinster and Ireland if not for the ankle injury that ruled him out of the Six Nations. That delayed his comeback until the URC semi-final against Munster a week before the Champions Cup final rematch with La Rochelle in the Aviva Stadium 12 months ago.

“I didn’t play any of the knockout games coming up to the final. I was hoping that if I was fit I would play but unfortunately I didn’t make the team.

“It’s good this season. I’ve been super involved, and played all the knock-out games, so it definitely means a little bit more, playing the whole way through. Hopefully I get selected to play but it feels good now that I’m here at this point.”

Indeed, such has been McCarthy’s rapid rise this season that, beginning with that sensational opener in Marseilles, he started all of Ireland’s Six Nations games and all of Leinster’s Champions Cup games bar Sale at home six days after the win in La Rochelle last December, when he and James Ryan were immense. They may well be back in harness again, but it’s quickly become a case of who partners McCarthy for both province and country.

He hasn’t played since the win over Northampton in the semi-finals three weeks ago in part due to a slight ankle strain, but he allays any fears over his wellbeing and match fitness and points out he has played 22 games this season. He has started all but three of those 22 games for Leinster and Ireland.

“I’m super excited. It’s exactly where you want to be as a rugby player. This is why you play rugby, for these big weeks. There’s a lot of excitement, a bit of nerves, but you definitely feel alive at the moment.”

“We’ve loads of experience in the group but there’s loads of players who haven’t won a European Cup or gone to that level. It definitely feels like we want to take that next step and win a trophy. We’re all buzzing about this new territory of trying to win it.”

McCarthy’s excitement is entirely understandable, especially as he sorted out tickets for his family, including London-based cousins whom he hasn’t seen in years.

McCarthy didn’t go to any of the 2009, 2011 or 2012 finals, although does recall being at his brother Paddy’s communion for the first of those triumphs.

“I remember getting stuck into some Munster uncles and that. As a kid, we were watching finals, as a massive Leinster fan.”

Leinster could not be facing more illustrious opponents than the five-time winners.

“They’ve won the most European Cups so they’re probably the strongest club in world rugby given everything they’ve won. You know how many threats they have across the board.

“You know it’s going to be a fast game. It’s going to be physical. If you switch off, [Antoine] Dupont or one of their other players will catch you out. You just know you have to be on it for the whole 80 minutes.”