Jack Carty’s back for Connacht and aiming for bigger things

After recovering from horrific injury the outhalf is excited about future with province and Ireland

If it doesn't break you it can make you. This time a year ago Irish rugby was at a low ebb and perhaps no-one was in a lower place than Jack Carty. Both physically and mentally, he has been through the mill, but now, after another injury, Jack's back and Connacht are mightily grateful to have him.

On the last day of a mid-season break in Dubai in February last year, Carty suffered a ruptured spleen thanks to a bizarre accident on a water slide, which had to be removed, and which he says was every bit as painful and scary as it sounds.

“It was pretty terrifying at the time. I wasn’t even thinking about rugby at the time. It’s not something that you could ever imagine happening. It was excruciatingly sore.

“For three or four days they were testing my haemoglobin levels, because there had been too much internal bleeding. They had two options, either keep it in there and kind of clot where the rupture was, and I wouldn’t have been able to do any contact or any sport for about two years, or take it out there and then. The surgeon said that was the only way to go with it.”

Save or a few chest infections, there’s been no ill effects, although as he puts it “at the same time it puts everything in perspective”.

Carty actually was back on the pitch for one Pro12 game against Treviso, but with AJ MacGinty and Shane O’Leary in situ, he was 24th man for the final in Murrayfield.

“It was disappointing not to play in the final but I’d known I’d given a lot to the team that season. I’d played in 20-odd games, and I still got a medal at the end of the day, and I was so happy for Connacht and my team-mates, but I’m looking to win more.”

It’s always been that way for Carty, be it rugby, soccer or Gaelic football.

His parents, Susan and Ted, were the driving forces to his many sporting pursuits, and remain his biggest fans. They hail from Kiltoom, yet surprisingly there is little in the way of sporting achievements in the family tree, save for his maternal uncle Barry Rafferty playing rugby for the Irish colleges.

Carty’s dad runs a pork and bacon production company in Monksland, not far from Athlone, called Oliver Carty Meats, named after Carty’s grandfather, who initially sold cooked hams in his back garden.

Carty attributes his own love of sports to his school, Marist College, which embraces all sports. He also played soccer with Hudson Bay Celtic, and formed a central defensive pairing with Robbie Henhsaw on the Marist team that won an Under-15 All-Ireland Schools Cup.

“I was the same height as I am now – Robbie was a bit shorter – so we were relative towers at the back. We didn’t have that much in the way of soccer skills, but were bigger and stronger than most others, and we’d hoof the ball up long to a big fella up front. That was basically our game plan.”

Offered a trial

Carty was offered a trial with Southampton, which fell through, but the highlight of his soccer career was playing for the Ireland under-15s against the Netherlands at Home Farm, on the same team as Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick.

He had no doubt Brady would go all the way: “He was just a different level from everyone else. He was so much quicker, and could beat fellas. He just seemed to be in first gear and step up to fifth gear whenever he wanted. Just a different level.”

As for Hendrick? “He was not as big and physical as he is now. He was a good bit smaller, a central midfielder who was good at breaking up the play and passing it.”

They drew 0-0 (“a boring stalemate”) which nonetheless wasn’t a bad reflection on himself. “I wasn’t the most skilful or the most athletic,” he says modestly. “I was quite strong and had a bit of pace, so never really got the ball played in behind me and was kind of good in the air.”

There was a second game against the Netherlands, as well as matches against Northern Ireland and Wales, and also a three-game series in the Aspire Academy in Qatar against the home team.

Soon after though, he abandoned soccer. “After playing for Ireland underage I suppose I realised that there are so many really good soccer players that even if you are somewhat talented you need a good bit of luck.”

Gaelic football took over. Carty’s under-16 Marist team won the All-Ireland crown, he captained the Roscommon under-16s and played for the Roscommon minors that lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals after extra-time at Croke Park.

“Not everyone gets to do that. I haven’t played in the Aviva yet so it would be pretty cool if I got to play in both of them.”

He also played for the nearby St Brigid’s club, and was at Croke Park when St Brigid’s finally won their first All-Ireland club football title in 2013.

“There were a few fellas saying to me: ‘Are you not raging that you didn’t stick with the football? You’d have an All-Ireland medal.’ It was one of the things I wanted to answer for myself with rugby. But it was good to see. A lot of my friends from school would have been on the team.”

Needless to say, Marist’s rugby team was half decent too. Carty’s and Henshaw’s parents had always been good friends, and Tony Henshaw had coached both boys from under-8s to their All-Ireland under-19 cup win with Buccaneers.

Rugby won out for Carty in large part because that was the sport most of his mates gravitated toward. “And I was better at rugby than I was at the others, especially soccer, and so there was more enjoyment. I’m also in the fortunate position that rugby is my job.”

His first Connacht match as a fan was at the age of 11, at Dubarry Park in January 2004, when Ronan O’Gara’s penalty earned Munster a 3-0 win. Yet despite playing for the Connacht schools and Irish youth teams, he didn’t make the Connacht academy in 2011 on leaving school.

‘Getting exposure’

However, playing for Buccaneers in Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League, was his springboard. “Getting exposure to that level of rugby at 18 was helped me a lot. We had a pretty good coach, Hendre Marnitz, who is now the Blue Bulls head coach. I had a few games with the Connacht Eagles, and made the academy the following year.”

He was also part of an Irish Under-20s 2012 Six Nations and the 2012 IRB Junior World Championships in South Africa. At the start of that season, Eric Elwood also informed him that he was third-choice outhalf for Connacht.

“I had trained with the seniors but it had never dawned on me that I was that close.”

In September he made his debut as a replacement for Gavin Duffy at fullback against Glasgow.

Yet, unlike some contemporaries, notably Henshaw and Kieran Marmion, he's had to bide his time. Carty was given his first start against Leinster in January 2014 and the following month was offered his first contract.

The presence of Dan Parks limited Carty’s opportunities, although he learned plenty, and after Parks’s departure, Carty made 28 appearances in the 2014/’15 season. Last season promised more of the same until it was cruelly interrupted. He’d lost 10 kilograms in three or four days due to his spleen operation, so the off-season and pre-season allowed him time to revive and rebuild himself.

Hard work and a good attitude have never been a problem for Carty, a popular character in the Connacht fold. By his own admission, his defence wouldn’t have been the strongest aspect of his game but he has improved his tackling immeasurably this season.

"In pre-season I made a really conscious effort with Dave Ellis to tidy that up, and then I noticed that in my first three or four games I started making my first tackle, and then my second, third and fourth, and my confidence built. And when you start making more tackles, you get less traffic coming down your channel."

Goal-kicking has also been an issue, particularly this season, until that redemption night at home to Wasps, prior to which his technique suffered.

“I’d get caught up in the moment.”

The devilishly capricious elements at the Sportsground don't help but, after he missed two penalties in the defeat away to Wasps, he worked with both Elwood and the Irish team's kicking coach, Richie Murphy.

“Instead of kicking through the ball fully, I was kicking around it slightly, which meant some of them led to the left.”

Confidence grew

This was critical in helping him understand why he missed his first kick in the home tie against Wasps. He nailed his next kick, and another from the touchline approaching half-time and his confidence grew. After landing a third, the game came down to his touchline conversion from the right to beat Wasps.

He’s still not sure whether his feelings were one of relief or elation. “It was kind of like a soccer celebration to see all the lads on the halfway line running toward me. It was fairly special.”

That said, he doesn’t want that to be the defining moment of his season, and wants to push on now.

“I won’t lie and say that I don’t think about playing for Ireland.” Partly to that end, he likens this hugely significant encounter with Toulouse to a Test match. Perform in these and that can only stand to a player, with Carty setting himself the goal of making Ireland’s summer tour.

Not alone has Marnitz Boshoff’s signing upped the competition at outhalf, but Carty has more competition coming up the rails in the shape of his younger brother Luke, who has been the starting outhalf for the Connacht Eagles.

“A couple of weeks ago he was training with us, so I was trying to get the ‘nines’ to throw him a few bad passes. I didn’t want him outshining me,” jokes Carty. “No, he’s going well. He’s trying to make the Irish under-20s squad for the Six Nations, but if he doesn’t there’s still a lot of rugby to be played.”

Having recently signed a new two-year deal, Carty’s ambitions have risen in tandem with Connacht. He cites the re-signing of established front-liners and the age profile of a clutch of home-grown players.

“I definitely think that more silverware can be won with this group of players.”

There’s still qualification for next season’s European Champions Cup to aim for, but more immediate is the prize on offer on Sunday.

“Wouldn’t it be great to be in a quarter-final? You could be up in Dublin or in Munster, but just to be in a quarter-final would probably be the second biggest game in Connacht’s history. In other years it would have been daunting trying to go to places like Saracens and win over there, but we know if we bring our game we have a chance of going somewhere we’ve never been before. That’s exciting.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times