Joey Carbery content in the shadow of Johnny Sexton for now
IRFU head of performance believes the 22-year-old would be well suited to the NFL
Leinster’s Joey Carbery: “You can learn from Johnny Sexton and you can always strive and want to beat him.” Photograph: Ryan Wilkisky/Inpho
In the spring of 2016 the IRFU made an appointment that was interesting only to those who saw virtue in the traditionally prosaic world of strength and conditioning.
Nick Winkelman was lured from an NFL background to Irish rugby and brought with him a cutting-edge ability to find margins.
Discovering fractions where there were none before, improving areas by decimal points and over the course of a season adding them and multiplying them so that players were full percentages better than they used to be was his science.
Winkelman knew about movement and as we sat listening, the kindergarten questions began to rain down. Who was the best player he worked with? Are there similarities between the sports? What Irish rugby player would do well in the NFL?
He went through the strengths of a number of internationals, where they might fit in to an NFL team and what positions they could play. But he was pressed for just one name. Finally and a little reluctantly he came out with Joey Carbery.
What attracted Winkelman was Carbery’s natural verve for lateral movement, his flair for finding space, making space, understanding space and using it.
In a crowded midfield, Carbery stepped left leaving the Fijian prop Campese Ma’afu woefully committed to the wrong direction then ghosted right, easily outpacing two covering backs before delivering a perfect 15 metre pass to the wing.
All of that to a chorus of cooing approval, from Shane Horgan, from Eddie O’Sullivan and then moments later a crash, an awkward fall and a broken wrist and Carbery was leaving the field.
The rise of Carbery
Now, here he is clenching and straightening his fingers, running his thumb along the damaged area like a shaman rubbing his lucky bone.
From those lows and highs nothing has greatly changed. This is still the era of the rise and rise of Carbery.
“You hear a good bit about it but you can’t pay attention,” he says. “It’s tough to say but you have to block it out, think about the things that matter like getting picked, getting back training.
“When someone talks about you, you are always interested. But the main thing is you always have to listen to the main people like Leo [Cullen], Joe [Schmidt] and Stuart [Lancaster]. You try and block the rest out.”
Carbery has just completed a kicking session from hell. What Ophelia promised the tail end of capricious Eleanor has delivered. The RDS with its antiquated sweep of halls, walkways and cob webbed horse stalls is undergoing extreme ventilation and making all sorts of noises.
In time the 22-year-old will come to see Sexton as an obstacle and hindrance.
“You can learn from him and you can always strive and want to beat him,” he says. That frame of mind serves him well now. Sexton is a fixture too well installed.
However, it is rarely Sexton to whom Carbery is compared. It has always been the mercurial 2015 World Cup winning All Black Beauden Barrett. Outhalf, fullback or winger Carbery has the enterprise and utility value of Barrett. Already he has become inert to flattering comparisons.
“I have followed his career and watched him play and he is pretty exceptional,” he says. “To be compared to him is a bit of a privilege. I would love to follow in his footsteps and be named as world player of the year and win a World Cup.
“I’m not the same as him though. I’ve got to be my own player and I have to work on my basics and then hopefully his sort of accomplishments will come through.
‘Best people to learn from’
“It’s all about developing your game and he developed his behind Dan Carter who was one of the best people to learn from,” adds Carbery.
“I’m learning from Johnny so that is similar, I suppose. I’m just trying to learn day by day.”
There is in that phrasing just a suggestion Sexton is as good as Carter.
“Yep,” quips Carbery deadpan. There is no conspiratorial grin, or playfully raised eyebrow, no sense that anyone should find his view so surprising. Sexton, Carter, Carter, Sexton.
“Similar players but the way that Johnny takes responsibility...,” he says. “That’s one thing I can learn from him. He controls the team and talks to players in such a way that they listen. It’s a big part of playing 10. The two of them have huge control in how they want the game to be played.”
Halfbacks have come to understand there will be a plague on the house of any scrumhalf who gives Sexton scruffy ball. Sexton is particular, demanding, imperious, a decision maker and the team chief whip. Carbery has a lot of edges to acquire.
But leadership can be learned and Carbery has his choices. Democratic, coercive, authoritative, communicative, all of them combined. Then there is the value of understanding risk, although that one seems to be already in his locker. But Carbery’s natural reticence makes him appear less confrontational, more appeasing.
There is a scene in the Lions fly on the wall diary video, where Welsh scrumhalf Rhys Webb throws Sexton a lousy pass. Angered, Sexton turns on Webb letting him know exactly how he feels. Carbery is not an “angry man”.
“I am a lot more comfortable around everyone now and you’re not talking to strangers,” he says. “I’m talking to my friends. You have to be loud and in control. Once you accept that and realise people actually do listen to you, then it is a lot easier.
“There is a line between positive and negative. You always have to be positive with the team. But you can’t accept not great stuff all the time. There is a certain line where you still have to be positive while not accepting… dirt, really.”
Carbery’s wrist is a pleasing day-to-day recovery, sore, not sore, strong, worried, confident... He hopes to make the paddock for Leinster’s European Cup games, probably the second one away to Montpellier.
He is content in the shadow of Sexton, at ease in knowing that next to a monolithic figure is the right place to be. He is not on his way to Ulster.
He is working on his kicking with the master and his hands are again free of the cast. Nothing needed now.
“Yeah,” he nods. “Just get back fit, get the ball back in my hands.”