One of the most encouraging aspects of Munster's performance in overcoming Exeter at Thomond Park last Saturday was the display of Joey Carbery. His match-winning 21-point haul was the point of difference over the two legs and was a reminder how important a high class outhalf is in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Look through the seven Irish triumphs in the history of the competition and the outhalves in question were David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara and Johnny Sexton. Toulon's three triumphs were with Jonny Wilkinson (twice) and Matt Giteau at '10', Owen Farrell was an ever present in Saracens' three Cup wins and Toulouse had Romain Ntamack at the helm last season.
Carbery has always had the talent to one day be bracketed in that company and last Saturday saw him back to his best, mixing his game up, orchestrating Munster’s well-conceived game plan, taking his try sharply, landing six from six and even making 13 tackles.
After his well-documented injury woes, it looked like his old confidence and swagger were back.
“There were obviously dark days with the injury so I am just delighted to be able to go out there and do my thing. It is so enjoyable to be out there in front of that crowd and to be with that team,” he said afterwards.
“Obviously we are delighted with the result, but I think the memories that we take from days like today are incredibly special, playing with some of your best mates, going out there and being able to put a great performance down and move on. Yeah, it’s incredibly special.”
“They (the crowd) definitely spur us on hugely in the tough times. When we are defending on our own line and you hear the crowd coming on, it gives you a little bit extra energy, so they play a huge part for us and we never, ever take for granted their support. I think they help us out so much.”
It's also worth noting that this was still only his 32nd game for Munster and just his ninth in Europe.
“I think playing space, playing heads up rugby is something I have been OK at, but I want to get a lot better at. Guys like Doogs (Damian de Allende) and Zeebs (Simon Zebo) they can see space and all I have to do is that I know is trust the call and I know they have made the right call. So being able to trust them is a big thing.”
The six from six was arguably the stand-out, a performance of world-class goalkicking, which not even he might have thought possible after the warm-up, particularly the three into the wind in the first half.
“Even the very first one, Pete said to me: ‘Do you want to take this?’ And I was like: ‘I dunno, with this wind it could go anywhere.’ But I was pretty happy with how it went. It can be very swirly out there. It was mainly coming down into our faces in the first half, but even some of the kicks out there in the warm-up were being pulled, so I am pretty happy with six out of six.”
Munster’s decision to take four penalties at goal, as well as one in the first leg, was in sharp contrast to Exeter, who opted to put ten kickable penalties into the corner and missed their sole effort from halfway on half-time as well as four conversions by Joe Simmonds, who led them to their title success two seasons ago.
“I think with the aggregate score every point counts and I suppose being the first time either team has been in it, we just knew we needed to get as much points as we could get and see how we came out,” said Carbery.
“We kinda knew in the back of our minds that Exeter were never down and beaten, they could always come back and score so we knew we had to keep going for it. We scored two tries as well so we were pretty happy with that.”
Carbery and Munster alike can also take huge confidence from the way they came through that unyielding two-legged tie against with the champions of two seasons ago.
“Massively, massively. I think the last two weeks we didn’t perform probably to the best of our ability. Now that kinda puts a platform hopefully we can spring on from and just shows exactly what we can do when we all show up.”