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Joey Carbery has fifth cap in sight after impressive Leinster form

Youngster says Sexton is the ‘best person I can learn from in the world at this stage’

Ireland back Joey Carbery celebrates his team’s triumph against the All Blacks in Chicago last year. “It was a dream come true.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

How time flies. A week and a year ago Joey Carbery celebrated his 21st birthday in Chicago and made his debut in the same city four days later as a 59th-minute replacement for Johnny Sexton in the win over the All Blacks. Some week. Some start to his Test rugby career.

A year older, and after a quieter 22nd birthday dinner with his family on Wednesday of last week, he says he’s also a year wiser. In a momentous month, there’d follow a second cap off the bench in the win over Canada, and an even more adaptable 50-minute stint off the bench as a makeshift fullback in the resourceful win over Australia.

“Yeah, it came pretty quickly when you look back on everything that has happened since,” he reflected in the squad’s customary base at Carton House, Co Kildare, on Tuesday. “Yeah, it has been pretty crazy. Time flies I suppose. You’ve got to make sure you are enjoying it as you go.”

Whatever happens, he’ll always have Chicago, and that storybook debut at the end of a remarkable week. Memories now? “Jeez, obviously the big one was the Cubs winning and the whole buzz around the city, but then, obviously, building up to the game and playing against the All Blacks for my first cap, and just feeling so excited more than anything. I couldn’t wait to get out there.”

‘Steer us home’

“I came on with 20 minutes left. I remember just running on and Jamie [Heaslip] saying: ‘Relax, just steer us home.’ It was good to have all the players around me who could give me that little bit of advice in my ear and cool everything down a bit as well. That was very helpful.”

The standout memory is an easy one for him.

“It has got to be Robbie’s try,” he says of the try by Robbie Henshaw which sealed Ireland’s belated first win over the All Blacks. “Then just a feeling of being ecstatic and the whole crowd going crazy. Probably the best thing about it was watching back and seeing everyone’s reaction on our team, like ‘Murr’ [Conor Murray] and JP [Jared Payne] going crazy as well. So that was pretty cool.”

“I still have to pinch myself about it,” says the New Zealand-born Carbery, who moved to Athy when he as 11. “It is a bit of a whirlwind to be honest. But I couldn’t have dreamed of anything more, and my dreams kinda came true that day, playing for Ireland and beating the All Blacks as well. That was something I always wanted to do, for it to happen that quickly obviously wasn’t expected, but dreams come true really.

“I kind of sat down and said ‘I want to keep building on this and hopefully in the next few years with World Cups and stuff coming up, keep improving, keep building’. Not just as an individual but as a team as well. The potential we have as a team is incredible, and I suppose reaching our potential and how we’re going to get there is what we will find out.”

There’s only been one cap since, if truth be told a less than distinguished first start in the summer win over the USA. But on the verge of a potential fifth cap against the Springboks on Saturday, most likely off the bench, he seems to be in a good place after a run of impressive games for Leinster at fullback.

Freedom at fullback

He admits he has been “surfing in and out” from different positions in training. He retains a preference for outhalf, and the greater involvement that position brings, but enjoys the freedom at fullback.

It’s also given him a greater appreciation of outhalf play, and helped him to mature, “both mentally and physically. I’m a bit wiser as well, as in during the heat of a game, everything can be a completely crazy phenomenon. So being able to deal with it, bringing my mind back to a controlled state is something that takes a bit of time and mindfulness is a big thing in that as well. You get better as you get on with it and I feel that’s improved from when I’ve been in those situations previously.”

There’s also no better place to develop than in the Leinster environment, not least in working with Sexton, with whom he has been dovetailing as a second playmaker, as well as quizzing him after training or over laptops.

Sexton recently complained aloud about Carbery’s musical tastes, which afforded the 22-year-old a little dig back on Tuesday. “I think it was just too young for him. I think it might have been [a track from] Post Malone’s [album] Stoney. It’s a big hit in the charts at the moment but he didn’t like it.”

But, Carbery admits: “He’s probably the best person I can learn from in the world at this stage, just on his detail, how well he knows the game. He’s such a good rugby brain. It’s really good just to be able to pick it and it helps me a lot as well, just to be able to see a different view other than just mine.”

The two-time Lions Test series outhalf is none too shabby as a benchmark either. “No,” says Carbery, smiling. “It’s a lot to live up to, really.”