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Gordon D’Arcy: Jack Carty is back in the Ireland fold and I hope he shines

If we can replicate ruck speed shown against All Blacks we are Six Nations contenders

It wasn’t until I finished playing rugby that I gathered some perspective on the environment in which I had existed for almost 20 years.

Rugby has a mise-en-scène ambiance to it, the players as actors with the background set-pieces constantly changing. A player may feel in control of their destiny on stage but it is not always the case, especially when it comes to selection.

They can certainly make a strong case in terms of performances but there is an element of subjectivity on the part of another, along with one or two other variables that don’t equate directly to what happens on the pitch.

That can be tricky and ultimately frustrating for a player. In those circumstances you hope to establish a good rapport with the coaches, governed by honest feedback, even when it’s tough to accept; I know from personal experience.

When Eddie O’Sullivan dropped me from Ireland’s World Cups squad in 2003 he did so with a little blunt force trauma verbally. He told me that I was too inconsistent, and that just because I could do eight exciting things there was the propensity to deliver three crazy things, which didn’t leave me with a tally of plus five in the playing ledger.

He added that while I could win games I could also lose them, and that those yoyo levels in performance terms didn’t warrant inclusion.

Several years later I approached Joe Schmidt looking for areas to improve in my game as the competition intensified; I wanted to know what else was required to stay ahead of the pack, and he directed me to work on the back end of tackling.

That feedback is important in the development pathway, where trust between coach and player is honoured. On that note I would have liked to be a fly on the wall for the conversations over the past fortnight between Munster head coach Johann van Graan and his young outhalves Ben Healy and Jack Crowley.

Pecking order

There is a defined pecking order with Joey Carbery at the front of the queue, followed by Healy and Crowley in that order. Van Graan has struck rigidly to those preferences.

There were times prior to Christmas when I felt that it might have been better to give Healy more continuity in the 10 jersey, and last week I advocated for Crowley to start on the strength of his performance against Castres and the need for him to be allowed to build on that European experience.

I still have my doubts in terms of the pecking order and how things may pan out when the matches get tougher later in the season. To clarify the point, for outhalves to understand how to properly run a match requires an unbroken run of games.

While Van Graan’s decision to start Healy last weekend was vindicated in what was a largely excellent performance in attack I will await to see how selection impacts at the business end of the season. “Experience” becomes a more vital attribute as the levels rise. Hopefully one of the two will have banked enough at that stage.

It has been interesting to note how much of an influence that Munster backs’ coach Stephen Larkham has had on Healy; the outhalf outlined a couple of subtle changes in terms of lines of running that would have been counter-intuitive to what he learned as a young player.

Larkham was outstanding in that respect as a player, and hopefully Healy and indeed Crowley continue to absorb those performance values for the rest of the season.

To their credit the incremental improvement in general performance terms from the two young Munster outhalves is visible in matches. They've run with the challenge effectively. Healy's most recent performance will have interested Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.

Game time

Carbery's current wellbeing following elbow surgery is a matter of conjecture for those outside the loop, but it would be a remarkable achievement if he was fit to make a matchday 23 for the opening two Six Nations fixtures with no game time since the injury.

I was a little surprised that Farrell is not taking a fourth outhalf to the Portugal training camp. From the outside it seemed to present the perfect opportunity to take either Healy or Crowley under the same terms and conditions as Connacht's Cian Prendergast, aka a development player.

Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Beirne especially provided dynamism, consigning the all too familiar static nature of forward carries to history

Regardless of my personal opinion that Crowley is the more natural fit in the formation and style that Ireland are currently embracing, Healy’s passing and kicking range in Thomond during the Heineken Champions Cup victory over Wasps demonstrated that he has the capacity to play in a similar vein.

In the interest of specifically watching the provincial outhalves last weekend I did a little homework and had a look back at the development of Ireland’s attacking shape from the Autumn Nations series in November.

What struck me perhaps more than anything else is that it is not simply about the playbook but the calibre of players running the patterns. After all, rugby is still a series of catch, pass or kick moments.

Caelan Doris, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Beirne especially provided dynamism, consigning the all too familiar static nature of forward carries to history. Quick ruck ball increases the menu of options available to the half-backs, and with Jamison Gibson-Park’s vision and speed, the ball was whipped away from the breakdown on the basis of seeking space rather than contact where possible.

Diamond shape

It is not overstating things to suggest that if we deliver our rucks, even close to the speed that we managed against NZ, we would be genuine championship contenders.

The diamond shape for the forwards with the outhalf lurking in behind is not new, but the crucial difference during those series of victories is that everyone is in motion and ergo an option to receive possession. There is also movement outside this diamond which is making it very hard for the opposition to try and shut down Ireland defensively.

A key decision-maker and enabler in the process is the player standing in the 10 channel. On occasion it was clear that when a player drifted into that slot for whatever reason those unaccustomed to it struggled; they carried a step too far or picked the wrong pass.

Jack Carty’s form for Connacht offered a compelling case for inclusion when injuries struck down Carbery and Harry Byrne. His previous stint with the national team came largely during the end of the Joe Schmidt regime where the focus was on a heavily-prescribed game plan that was long on detail and championed minimising risk and error.

Carty, a free spirit, has a similar role to Sexton's at Leinster as commander-in-chief. There is a subtle difference. Carty appears to drive the game plan with little obvious input from those around him. Connacht played some brilliant rugby with the outhalf pulling the strings for 60 minutes against the Leicester Tigers and for pretty much the same period of last weekend's game in Paris.

The final quarters in both matches were poorly executed, and when that happens the spotlight invariably falls on a team’s primary game manager, the outhalf. Connacht’s inability to kick accurately on their terms cost them that result against Tigers.

Adventure

Last Sunday, playing with an extra man following the sending off of Stade Francais hooker Tolu Latu, required a slightly different change of tack in tweaking Connacht’s innate sense of adventure to ensure that they kept their opponents at arm’s length. It never materialised.

That game management is a strong characteristic of Sexton’s game, and one we know will serve the immediate needs of Ireland assuming he’s fit and healthy. What will be interesting to note is how Carty copes with the same to-do list.

There is something exciting about a player like Carty returning to the Test arena. He will feel there is unfinished business in an Irish jersey

As the saying goes no man is an island, and I think that if and when the opportunity arises to be given the reins to steer the Ireland team he will benefit from the support of experienced players around him. In Connacht everyone looks to him and if he misfires it has a telling impact on the outcome.

That responsibility casts a long shadow, and shouldn’t fall to one person alone. It won’t be the case with Ireland because there are other players with a natural feel for the game that can help to orient the attacking shape.

The key for him will be to get the balance right between his natural flair and being able to exert the same influence when an endgame has to be managed. Ireland’s style of play should suit his eye.

There is something exciting about a player like Carty returning to the Test arena. He will feel there is unfinished business in an Irish jersey and I’m sure he would acknowledge that he can improve on the first incarnation as an international player.

Selection can be serendipitous. Carty is back in the fold and I hope he shines, because the one thing sport teaches us is that we never know when it will be our last chance. He has earned his shot and now has a chance to take his Test match career in an upbeat direction. That’s all any player can ask.