Joe McCarthy exceeding expectations in rise to the top

Towering Trinity and Leinster secondrow earns early call-up to Ireland squad

If Leinster had not scored nine tries that all needed detailing in the match report of their trip to Benetton earlier this month, a spark in the 53rd minute would have demanded more column inches.

Twenty-year-old lock Joe McCarthy carried, sharply stepped a defender before throwing a deft offload to keep the break alive. It wasn’t the only line break the Trinity man made. In all, he made 50 carrying metres on the day, a decent shift for his position.

Leinster have become used to producing athletic locks, James Ryan and Ryan Baird among them. Yet the conversation around Leinster and Ireland's secondrow play is the need for a specific bruising lock, the big athlete in the five shirt to scrum hard behind the tighthead prop, smash rucks and be a dog in the close exchanges.

For all his ability in terms of ball skills, McCarthy has been earmarked for that role. Listed at a hair under 120kg on Leinster’s website, he comes in heavier than both Ryan (115kg) and Baird (113kg).

His story is comparable to, though not quite the same as Ryan's, who was capped for Ireland before he was by Leinster. Caveats apply given that US-born McCarthy is in the Ireland squad because of injuries, but an international call-up just four appearances into his Leinster career is up there in terms of meteoric rises.

That is before you take into account where McCarthy was playing before Christmas. He started his season with Trinity, expecting to get a solid AIL campaign under his belt before hunting for Leinster appearances next year.

That didn’t last long.

Come January, Leo Cullen called for him in a debut away to Cardiff. His director of rugby at Trinity, Tony Smeeth, now does not expect to see him line out at College Park in the foreseeable future, if ever again.

“I was talking to Leo Cullen at the beginning of the season and he told me we’d have Joe for a while so he can get some senior rugby” explains Smeeth. “We had him for our UCC game before Christmas and haven’t seen him since.

“My joke is that he has more chance of playing for Ireland than he does of playing for Trinity again.”

Not much of a joke anymore.

“He’s so physical, his leg drive, his power in contact, he’s just a real physical guy” continues Smeeth. “He relishes the contact. He always gets the extra couple of metres and he’s become a good athlete. I thought he was a bit awkward when he first came to us – like a lot of tall guys are, a bit gangly – but he’s certainly not now. He’s just tough.

Somewhat underrated

"We have him and Harry Sheridan – who is in the Ulster academy – in the secondrow and we call them the Bruise Brothers; they just smash things. Joe's really tough in close exchanges. I believe Stuart Lancaster has shown a video [in Leinster training] of how you drive through contact and he's shown Joe doing it. It's pretty impressive."

More impressive is McCarthy’s record of outperforming expectations. At every level he has arrived somewhat underrated only to prove his worth. The process started with a major growth spurt in school.

"I know he sprung up in fifth year, five, six inches or something ridiculous" says Smeeth, who was also involved in McCarthy's career at Willow Park and Blackrock. "He then came to us [Trinity] unheralded. He lined out for our U20s, played a friendly early in the season and he was class. The first team needed a secondrow at the time so we put him straight up.

“He ended up on the Ireland U20s team [in 2020]. He wasn’t even in the shake-up for that, but then he went into camp and they had to pick him. It seems like he always steps up to that level. Some players struggle but he has that ability to step up to that next level.”

Add in how McCarthy wasn’t really earmarked for a Leinster debut – let alone an Ireland call-up – this season, and the trend of outperforming expectations only continues. Only after Monday’s call-up, it is unlikely he will ever be unheralded again.

Smeeth is also keen to point out the fillip McCarthy is for the club game. Since Covid, Leinster’s A side has been out of action, meaning academy players like him are free to play week-in, week-out in the AIL.

“They see now how good the club game has been this year” acknowledges Smeeth. “What’s happened is they were forced to play and the league is the best it’s been now for years. I’ll talk to Leo on a Monday morning and he’s already seen our game.

“Everyone’s trying to play good rugby. We’ve got eight contracted players, they never all play but they’ve played way more than normal. Players say it’s tougher than an ‘A’ game. These guys need to get their ass kicked.”

A success story for Trinity, Leinster and potentially Ireland then. McCarthy seems unlikely to be capped against Scotland this weekend given Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell and probably Ross Molony are all ahead of him in the pecking order, but the fact that his name was called shows his admirers go all the way to the top.

At the beginning of the season, Cullen told Trinity that they would likely have McCarthy for a while. Come March, it was the Leinster boss himself who couldn’t hold onto him.

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