Graham Henry believes that both Leinster and Ireland will have no need to worry once Jonny Sexton hangs up his boots, or so the story goes. Gordon D’Arcy would tend to agree, while Rob Kearney has been similarly impressed by Joey Carbery’s start to the 2016/2017 season.
“We’ve seen his potential over the past number of months on a daily basis and obviously he starred for Clontarf last year,” the Irish fullback said. “It’s important that guys are rewarded for how they are performing and you saw how superb he was [against Treviso]. He showed that he’s right at home at this level.” High praise indeed. But just who is Joey Carbery?
A relatively new face to Irish rugby fans, the young out-half took little time to introduce himself to the most critical analysts of all. Within the first three minutes of his career in professional rugby, Carbery’s sleight of foot and strength in contact saw him go under the posts for Leinster’s first try of the season. Another effort later in the half further exhibited his attacking flair. Picking up a loose ball just shy of his own 22, Carbery slipped a tackle before showing plenty of gas to race clear and step outside the last line of defence.
Yet we need not be fooled by his Kiwi accent. Having moved to the country from his native New Zealand at the age of 11, Carbery is very much a product of the Irish development system having progressed through both the clubs’ and schools’ scene.
“I was born with a rugby ball in my hand,” he admits, speaking to Pundit Arena. “My father, my grandfather and his father before him all played rugby to a decent level back at home. Dad played representative rugby until he moved to Ireland at 21 and met my mother. In time they moved back to Auckland where I was born.” When settling in his mother’s homeland of Athy a number of years later, Carbery quickly became involved with the local rugby club and developed his game under the influential tutelage of his father, a former half back for the Blackrock College club.
“I played up to U19s at Athy. I was always involved in the older teams. We always had a good bunch of guys there so no matter what grade I played with we seemed to get to a Leinster final. We never won but we always seemed to be there or thereabouts. The only problem was that Blackrock were always there too.”
Having tasted representative rugby as a scrum half with Leinster Youths, Carbery sensed that schools’ rugby might offer the clearest path into the professional game. He, therefore, jumped at the opportunity to go to Blackrock College for his final year of schooling.
“There was a lot more training involved and a bit more structure than I had ever been used to at Athy. Personally, it was probably more in line with my own thinking of how I needed to progress my game if I was to have any hope of pushing on. We had a great side too which helped. Nick Timoney, Jeremy Loughman – I think every one of us played provincial rugby at some level.”
Carbery was deployed at full back and Sean Kearns (currently leading St. Mary’s impressive start to the UBL season), featured at out half as Blackrock prevailed to claim their 68th Senior Cup title following an exciting win over Clongowes Wood in the final. But while his rugby motives were vindicated, Carbery was equally determined to get a good Leaving Certificate. This year he continues his Sports and Exercise Management course at UCD. Although his education remains of importance, Carbery’s growing role in Leinster will undoubtedly have shifted his ranking of priorities.
“I’ve worked hard on my game, but I’m only just starting out. There are many more years of work ahead. The pace of the PRO12 was a definite step up from the UBL. I’m beginning to get a grasp on it but I had to adapt my game slightly at the outset.
“Not for one moment did I think I could make an impact in that manner. The management would appear to have belief in me in that they’ve been given a bit of freedom to bring my own game to the table – to play to the line and whatever is in front of me. From time to time, when I push the boat out a little too far, they’ll pull me back and canvas the safe option but that’s all part of the learning experience. I’m just trying to enjoy every bit of it at the moment.”
With Jonny Sexton making an impressive return to the fray in the Friday’s 31-19 victory over the Ospreys, Carbery had to make do with a late cameo off the Leinster bench. Despite his remarkable start to the season, the youngster is all too aware that his early season form will need to continue should he wish to remain involved. While Ian Madigan’s departure has created a void below Sexton, Carbery, Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne have all feasibly targeted the understudy role.
“Ross and I have been toe-to-toe for a number of years now. I struck it lucky with the Irish U20s when he got injured for the Junior World Championships in 2015. Ross had started throughout the Six Nations earlier that year and had played extremely well. It’s never nice to see a mate get injured, but when my opportunity arose, I had to take it and I felt that I had a decent tournament. Momentum has continued to build ever since.”
Such impetus was carried into the Ulster Bank League season last year as Carbery led Clontarf’s assault on the title. Following his Man of the Match performance in their victory over Cork Constitution in the final, coach Andy Wood duly remarked that he was resigned to losing their “special player” to the professional ranks. The player though will always fondly remember his time with the club.
“At Blackrock we had everything going for us. We were the dominant side throughout the year. But at Clontarf we didn’t make it easy for ourselves. A few trips to Munster in the depths of winter didn’t exactly suit our style! We really had to work at our all-round game. We had some serious talent in that side though with Conor O’Brien, who’s now in the Leinster Academy and the likes of Mick McGrath who’s also in and out of the Leinster set-up. It’s probably my greatest achievement to date.”
Going into this campaign as fourth choice below Byrne and Marsh, Carbery’s graceful and at times steely game has seen him stick his neck out ahead of his rivals. “Ross and I were in the Academy together and Cathal Marsh was just a few years ahead. We all know each other quite well at this stage. We’re all competitive but the reality is that they’re really nice guys and we do what we can to help each other out. There’s a lot of give and take, which can only be healthy from both an individual and collective perspective.”
A quiet and mannerly young man, Carbery is not short of confidence in his own game – a telling trait in an aspiring out half. Given his form and potential, it is increasingly likely that Joe Schmidt will invite Carbery to join up with an extended Irish squad ahead of the November internationals. The youngster remains unfazed.
“My immediate goal is to get into the Leinster team every week, even when Johnny is available for selection. As one of the best in the game, I try to learn as much as I can from him, but ultimately I have to hope to oust him from the team.
“He’s very helpful but you learn more by watching him. He wouldn’t be one of these guys that take you under their wing, advising you on various aspects of your game. He trusts that you haven’t just fallen into that position so he expects you to be of the standard that Leinster deserves – and he knows what your objective is!”
“But who knows… maybe New Zealand will come calling before then!”
Richard McElwee, Pundit Arena