Gerry Thornley: Joey Carbery at Munster looks a little wrong, but feels very right

Youngster’s debut was a tasty vignette of what he might bring to van Graan’s province

 Munster’s Joey Carbery on his debut for the province against the Cheetahs last weekend: his move from Leinster  has provoked more angst, interest and excitement than most. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Munster’s Joey Carbery on his debut for the province against the Cheetahs last weekend: his move from Leinster has provoked more angst, interest and excitement than most. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

 

Maybe it was the tan, maybe it was the ongoing warm rays of summer, but somehow Joey Carbery just didn’t look the same in the all red of Munster, did he?

This must have been particularly true for the few Leinster supporters who could bring themselves to watch, although as Connacht fans will no doubt point out, now they know how Connacht felt when Robbie Henshaw moved east.

For whatever reasons, some sporting transfers provoke more interest, angst and excitement than others. Of course, we will all get used to Carbery in Munster red, even Leinster fans, and most probably sooner rather than later. The fuss will die down.

Plenty of Leinster players have joined other provinces, not least in latter times, and many have travelled in the opposite direction. However, akin to Henshaw, Carbery’s move from Leinster to Munster has provoked more angst, interest and excitement – depending on one’s perspective – than most. This is probably because they are still very young as well as being bloody good, and both of their “home” provinces desperately wanted to keep them. 

Furthermore, rather than the mooted one-year loan deal which might have suited Ireland’s needs in the elongated build-up to the 2019 World Cup, not only did Carbery choose to leave Leinster, and choose Munster over Ulster, but also opted for a two-year deal.

While Blackrock and the Leinster academy can each claim some small slice of Carbery, his family and rugby roots are, essentially, from Athy, which is not a million miles from Munster. Depending on how he takes to Munster and they to him and how in the meantime Leinster progress without him, this arrangement could extend well beyond two years.

Baby steps

Last Saturday’s introduction to his new career at Thomond Park with Munster 17-0 up against a fading, re-assembled Cheetahs team in the 54th minute hardly constituted a pressure cooker environment. He was eased in for the last 26 minutes of a fairly easy win. Baby steps, against poor opposition.

Even so, the early signs were encouraging. The very fact that he was appearing in the seasonal opener having played in the opening two Tests demonstrated how keen he and Johann van Graan are to get his Munster career up and running. Likewise the loud cheer from a good-sized crowd indicated this sentiment is shared by the Munster faithful.   

Carbery’s performance was also a tasty vignette of what he might bring, if purely in the manner he brings the ball to the gain line and uses his footwork and snappy passing to create a fraction of additional time and space for those around him.

There’s now quite a logjam at outhalf in Munster, and in all of this one feels particularly sorry for the JJ Hanrahan. The gifted 26-year-old from Kerry was making his 84th game for Munster, but it was only his 24th at outhalf, and his only two knock-out games at outhalf were in last season’s Pro14 quarter-final (when he played well) and semi-final.

His running and passing games were sharp last Saturday, there was a physicality to his game and it was good player management to leave him on the pitch as, ironically, he linked and hit the line effectively with Carbery from fullback.

The pity, of course, is that Conor Murray won’t be there for the next while amid the curiously vague Munster missives about his reputed, and worrisome, neck injury. But Carbery has the ability to revel with his first extended run at outhalf.

Outhalves are pivotal to a team’s results and often take time to develop in the position. You think of the Heineken Champions Cup, and the list of winning outhalves is a stellar one, be it Owen Farrell, Jonny Wilkinson or whomever. For a team to win the European Cup, they’ve generally needed a top-class, Test-quality “10”.

Audacious footwork

This has been particularly relevant to the Irish wins in the competition, when the guiding hand at the tiller for the seven Irish triumphs have been David Humphreys, Ronan O’Gara (twice) and Johnny Sexton (four times).     

But it’s worth noting that Humphreys was 29 when he won the European Cup with Ulster, and O’Gara was 29 and 31, while Sexton was aged 23, 25, 26 and 32 when steering Leinster to the title.

Carbery is still only 22, and already has a dozen caps, which included a debut off the bench in the historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago and the Grand Slam coronation in Twickenham. At the same point, none of the other threesome had been capped.

Compared to that celebrated trio, Carbery has something of Humphreys’ audacious footwork, along with a balanced running style unique to him. He is a lovely striker of the ball, and has a pass and step with equal facility off both feet. Giving him experience in the role, he can develop the game management which became the hallmark of O’Gara and Sexton, and if he can, then Irish rugby will have another jewel in the “10” jersey.

Unlike those three, Carbery has had limited time at outhalf even in the club game, and needs an extended run at “10” for his game management to develop. And he has to be allowed to make mistakes, by the crowd and others on the outside as well as those on the inside.

But, ultimately, he can be every bit as good as that celebrated trio. And this brave and intriguing move makes that more likely to happen, and sooner rather than later. 

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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