At the start of last season, Ross Byrne was probably Leinster’s fourth choice out-half.
Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery, and Cathal Marsh were all in the pecking order ahead of him, but then an injury crisis struck, and Byrne found himself guiding Leinster through the Champions Cup’s early rounds.
Ever since that run of games Byrne has been Johnny’s back-up, with Joey Carbery moving out to full-back.
Byrne has been going from strength to strength this past year, but he was left out Ireland’s November squad, with Carbery and Ian Keatley preferred. But should this have been the case?
There is no doubt that Joey Carbery is an incredibly talented player.
He has an air of Beauden Barrett about him in the way he is constantly looking for gaps to exploit, and he has a running game to rival anyone in world rugby.
The problem, however, is he has had very few opportunities to play at out-half.
Back-line injuries at Leinster saw Carbery move out to full-back where he excelled. However, why pick him as an out-half for Ireland when he is clearly lacking the experience at 10?
His play as an out-half is not yet up to international standard. His decision making and game management is not where it needs to be, nor is his place or tactical kicking.
These are areas where Byrne excels.
At very least, you want your fly-half to keep a scoreboard ticking over with penalties, but Carbery cannot reliably do this.
As of now, he plays like a full-back shoe-horned in at out-half; he goes looking for contact like he’s running from deep, and a lot of the time it’s not the right move.
Ian Madigan’s failings were always attributed to him not playing at 10 enough, so why pick Carbery for your reserve 10, when he is quite plainly a full-back?
While this may all sound quite negative, Joey Carbery’s game time at 15 should be a great benefit to him in the future.
Playing in a different position in the back-line develops different skills and a better understanding of what other players are doing around you.
Dan Carter spent many of his formative years at the Crusaders playing at inside centre outside another All Black great Aaron Mauger. Carbery will unquestionably be an Ireland great, but he needs to develop his out-half game before he can be trusted in a high stakes Test match.
All his flaws just need experience to iron out, and this should be easy to come by.
Picking Carbery at 10 is all the stranger when you have a ready-made out-half behind him.
Byrne is a younger Sexton. He’s a big unit, standing nearly four inches taller and weighing a stone more than Carbery, and like Sexton, is not afraid to get stuck in defensively.
His goal-kicking has improved since last year, putting over 80 percent between the posts. His crosskicks almost seem laser guided; he has six assists from kicks so far this season.
His passing and decision-making are excellent and he is playing with confidence, which can be the most important quality for an out-half.
In Carbery and Byrne, Leinster have the two out-halves that will keep Irish back-lines going for the foreseeable future, and we can only hope that they can both get plenty of game time at club level while learning from the best in the business.
Joe Schmidt will name his squad for the Six Nations at the end of the month. Along with Johnny, the in-form Ian Keatley will make it, but it may come too soon for the injured Carbery.
International rugby operates in World Cup cycles, and Ireland’s current depth at out-half is not ideal. Ross Byrne needs to play for Ireland – and as soon as possible.
Joseph O’Gorman, Pundit Arena