Gerry Thornley: Wherever Joey Carbery goes it's a win for Ireland

The 22-year-old is on the horns of a dilemma and has no guarantees with Leinster or Ulster

 

One of the reasons Joey Carbery’s decision regarding his immediate future at provincial level has generated so much interest is that most rugby supporters appear to have an opinion on the matter – and most can also appreciate that the 22-year-old is on the horns of a dilemma.

About the most positive aspect to the saga is that it is, ultimately, entirely his decision, with the help of his father and other advisers. Whether he remains at Leinster or relocates to Ulster or Munster for a season, there is no guarantee that his decision will be the right one. That’s sport. That’s the nature of these choices.

One could well understand his desire to remain with his native province and his mates. Rather than a draft system, that sense of local identity is one of the core reasons why the provinces punch above their weight. For Carbery, it’s all the truer after a season like this one, which culminated in another delightful cameo off the bench in Saturday’s history-making Guinness Pro14 final win over the Scarlets. Alas, therein lies the rub: it was another cameo.

It’s also understandable that Stuart Lancaster and Leinster want to keep such a talent and valuable member of their squad. They would be the main losers were he to move, even for a year, and to a degree would be punished for the effectiveness of their own production line.

In that scenario, either Ulster or Munster would be the beneficiaries, and most likely Ireland too, and therein lies another key factor. The bottom line in all of this is that when Johnny Sexton was ruled out of the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina and Ian Madigan started, the latter had only played four games for Leinster and two for Ireland since the beginning of the 2014-15 season.

The problem for Carbery is that he has only played three games at out-half in the last year

Matt O’Connor had played Madigan 13 times at inside centre and twice more at full-back, while his versatility had earned three more games off the bench for Leinster and 10 for Ireland. Heaven forbid were anything to befall Sexton again, but Ireland would want an understudy who’d had more game time in the preceding year at outhalf.

Three games

The problem for Carbery is that he has only played three games at out-half in the last year: for Ireland in last June’s opening tour game against the USA and again against Fiji last November, and just once for Leinster all season.

Unfortunately, the first two ended after 51 and 64 minutes due to an ankle injury and a fractured wrist, which sidelined him for four months. Who knows how his season might have panned out but for that injury, but by the time he returned, Ross Byrne had laid claims on the 10 jersey in Sexton’s absence, and so started the final European pool game away to Montpellier, with Carbery returning for the last 22 minutes off the bench at full-back.

Carbery played four games off the bench in the Grand Slam, particularly impressing in two stints at Twickenham, and he was unfortunate in that his sole start at out-half for Leinster was in a misfiring, inexperienced outfit in the defeat against Benetton. Byrne was introduced after an hour with Carbery reverting to full-back.

Even then, Leinster might have boxed more cleverly had they started Carbery again at out-half against Connacht or in the Pro14 semi-final against Munster, but both times they preferred Byrne, with Carbery at full-back.

While there have been further stints as a replacement out-half in the Euro quarter-final and semi-final, as well as last Saturday, ultimately Carbery has played about 250 minutes at out-half for province and country this season, whereas he started 10 games there for Leinster last season. By contrast Byrne, who has also been asked if he fancies a move, has started 11 of his 20 games at out-half for Leinster this season, which amounts to 1,560 minutes there. It’s no wonder he’s decided to stay put.

Effectively second choice out-half for Ireland but third choice for Leinster, Carbery has to weigh up all this. It could be that he will be afforded more game time at out-half for Leinster next season were he to stay, but that might not be the case.

One of the main plusses in relocating to Munster for a year would be that he’d potentially play alongside Conor Murray

Were he to join Ulster, there’s a greater likelihood of more game time, given the sacking of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who can also cover 10, leaves the province with only one out-half, the 21-year-old Johnny McPhillips.

Sanction

Hence David Nucifora, the IRFU high performance director, was not of a mind to sanction Ulster’s move for an overseas’ out-half, and specifically Elton Jantjies. Not only would it potentially block one avenue for an indigenous out-half for the season before a World Cup, but Jantjies would potentially face Ireland in a World Cup quarter-final.

Furthermore, one would question his value to Ulster in that after the Rugby Championship this summer, Jantjies would then probably be on Springboks duty during next season’s November window and in the build-up to and during the 2019 World Cup.

Although he has a natural strut on the pitch, off it Carbery is a well-reared, grounded, easygoing lad

As for Carbery, one of the main plusses in relocating to Munster for a year would be that he’d potentially play alongside Conor Murray, not least through a European pool campaign or more, as well as interpros and other frontline Pro14 games.

Then again, Munster already have four Irish qualified out-halves under contract for next season in JJ Hanrahan, Ian Keatley, Tyler Bleyendaal and the 22-year-old Bill Johnston. That would make the out-half cupboard in the UL fairly congested.

Overall, though, a move to either Ulster or Munster would probably benefit him, in the short term and maybe even the long-term, as well as either province and also Ireland’s World Cup. But it’s a toughie. You wouldn’t envy him.

Although he has a natural strut on the pitch, off it Carbery is a well-reared, grounded, easygoing lad. With his father (also Joey, his first coach and now part of the provincial coaching structure in their home town of Athy) as a guiding light, as well as his agent Ryan Constable of Esportif, whatever decision he comes to, Carbery will be completely committed to it. And, as Sexton has said, the province concerned will be lucky to have him.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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