Stephen Larkham: ‘Joey has got that heightened sense you want your 10s to have’

Opportunity beckons for Joey Carbery to prove he belongs on the international stage

Opportunity knocks again for Joey Carbery tomorrow. In his second coming as the understudy/anointed heir apparent to Johnny Sexton, Carbery needs this game and more like it, and Ireland need to see more of him as well.

Carbery's slow-burning return has to be put in context. Since effectively missing 16 months of his career through surgery on his ankle, and also a broken wrist, he has only started nine games for Munster and the two July tests for Ireland.

But one thing has held firm, and that’s his nerve and place-kicking technique, and his three penalties against the All Blacks a week ago should only help his and the team’s confidence.

His backs coach at Munster, the 102-times capped Wallabies World Cup outhalf Stephen Larkham, believes so.

"For the Ireland team there's been a lot of hard work put into all the provinces over here and for it to come together like that, on that showing against New Zealand, was amazing. But for Joey specifically, there's a lot of pressure on those kicks, isn't there?

“I think the first one being right in front makes it easy for him, and fresh onto the field - no fatigue. But then the second one, that’s a pressure kick. That’s halfway and that really decided the game.

“But that’s Joey. I think he’s got a really good temperament. He really is one of the most composed players that I’ve dealt with, there’s no doubt about that, and he does his preparation, particularly with his kicking. So I had no doubt that he was going to get those kicks.”

This will only be Carbery's ninth international start and the most meaningful since the first Test in Brisbane in the summer of 2018. Perhaps steering Ireland over the winning line, as he did on his debut five years earlier against the All Blacks in Chicago, can be the springboard to this second coming.

“Joey loves getting his hands on the ball. He’s a very dangerous, exciting player to watch and I think that’s what people are waiting for with Joey. We probably didn’t get to see that because it was just one of those games.

“But Joey has got all these other aspects to his game that are amazing, exciting step, good speed, great acceleration and really good core basics in terms of kick out of hand and pass. But it’s great to see him nail what is going to be regarded as his most important aspect as a ‘10’,” said Larkham in reference to those penalties.

Carbery’s injury woes have raised concerns that he mightn’t have the physicality to be an outhalf at Test level, but Larkham does not concur.

“I think he’s a really strong defender. Okay, teams will target him in defence but he’s actually very willing to put his body on the line. He gets in really good positions, he’s got good techniques and he’s a very tough player.

“Half of your battle with your defence is your mental side. You either want to be out there and making tackles or you shy away from it completely, and he is not that guy. He puts his body on the line. He knows where to be. He knows his responsibility in the front line and he does a really good job.

“Yep, he loses the momentum battle sometimes. He certainly loses the weight battle sometimes, but he’s not going to shirk his responsibilities in there. He’s been out a long time but since he’s come back he’s been getting better and better with his defence and you would expect that, that everything is going to come back after being out of the game for so long. But he’s worked hard on that and I’ve seen improvements every week.”

Much to Larkham’s frustration, he didn’t have a chance to work with him in his first season and a half with Munster. He’s discovered a player with “a real hunger for knowledge”, adding: “He’s still relatively young and new to the international scene. He’s not a seasoned veteran or anything like that and I guess that’s our challenge. What I’ve seen with his diligency since he’s come back in is that he’s going to be a really great player. There’s no doubt about that. The more time he gets out on the field you can just see that exponential growth that he’s going to have.”

Larkham clearly likes Carbery’s persona as well.

“He’s very respectful, he’s not cocky, he’s not egocentric, it’s not about him. He definitely thinks about everyone else first.” That hint of a swagger on Carbery’s best days Larkham attributes to “that real stoic attitude of ‘I’m going to do the right thing out here on the field.’ So it’s more confidence than anything else.”

There have been less signs of the swaggering, running, line-breaking, try-scoring Carbery since his return. Whereas there were player of the match performances galore and six tries in that first Munster campaign, there have been no tries since that double in a 24-point haul away to Gloucester in January 2019.

Larkham points to the implementation of a new system at Munster in the season-and-a-half he effectively missed with the province.

“So getting his head around the way we play was the first challenge for him and then sometimes you just don’t get the opportunities. Like, you look back on your career and I just use myself as an example. I played 102 Test matches. There’s only a handful of highlights out of that. So it’s not like every game there’s five highlights and 500 at the end of your career.”

Larkham cites Carbery's counter-attacking run when sidestepping two defenders and offloading for Shane Daly to finish against the Scarlets last March in his first start on the comeback trail.

“So it’s there. But sometimes understanding the game plan is going to help you there and other times the game just doesn’t come your way. It’s one of those tight games and defences are really solid through that area.

“In recovering from the injury, I’ve no doubt he’s feeling way more confident with all of that sort of stuff now. He’s only played a few games. He needs to be given the opportunity to play more games and you will see these highlights coming out.”

Maybe it’s in his genes or has something with first learning to play the game barefoot in New Zealand before his family relocated to Ireland when he was 11.

Larkham believes a good structure will give a player like Carbery confidence and help him make decisions quicker but he admitted: “Joey is different. He does have a really good sense. All players have a sense, but Joey has got that heightened sense and you want your ‘10s’ to have that. Whether that’s his upbringing or because he’s always played ‘10’, but when you’re in that position you do get a better sense of the game.”

Of course Carbery can also be mightily effective at fullback, where he made 15 of his 26 starts for Leinster.

Larkham was converted from fullback to outhalf himself and believes there are benefits to playing both at a young age, to see the game differently, have more opportunities to carry and time to see the space on the edges.

“I see Joey as a player who has the ability to play in both positions. Where does he want to be at the moment? That’s really Joey’s choice. I see him as a guy who’s dedicated to the ‘10’ position.”

Larkham concurred that Sunday is a big game for both this Irish team and for Carbery, all the more so on the back of last week.

"Argentina are actually building. I found that they had a pretty slow Rugby Championship. They didn't quite get their combinations right but they were good in pockets. Over here I've seen a real improvement in their game.

“They’ve got a really good backrow, a really damaging forward pack in terms of ball carries. They’re going to a typically Argentinian, passionate, physical side. That’s going to be a real challenge and I guess most of that will come out at Joey. In the Rugby Championship, most of the attack came through that seam.

“He’s going to have to cope with that but like I said before, he steps up for that every game, and it’s just another challenge along the way for him. But on the back of that beautiful win that Ireland had, they’ve got to back it up against what’s going to be a very physical team this weekend.”

Were Carbery also to back up last week in another Irish win, then all the better for him and Munster too, where Larkham maintained: “We feel that we’re improving and we’re moving toward something special.”

And with Carbery as one of the fulcrums.

“The more game time he has the more you’re going to see those highlights shining through. That player hasn’t gone. He’s only matured. He’s learned a lot from these experiences. He’s been able to reflect on the game, understand how composure is so important in leading the team. I think he’s learned a lot around leadership and he’s still got those natural attributes.

“It is there, it’s just that he hasn’t had the opportunities yet. It’s definitely all there still.”

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