During his brief stay in Dublin in September, Graham Henry pointed at Joey Carbery and remarked that neither Leinster or Ireland need worry when Jonny Sexton is forced to hang up his boots. Few would have the temerity to doubt the World Cup winning coach… but a fourth choice out-half from Athy?<br>
A new name to most rugby fans, the 21-year-old took little time to introduce himself to the harshest critics of all. Following an impressive pre-season, Carbery was handed the reins for the visit of Treviso in the opening game of the Pro12 season. Within minutes of his career in a professional guise, his sleight of foot and strength in contact saw him go under the posts for Leinster’s first try of the campaign.
Almost overnight, Carbery became a household name and fears immediately grew that he would be whisked back to his native New Zealand. However, having moved to these shores at the age of 11, Carbery is very much a product of the Irish development system. Indeed, he progressed through both the clubs’ and schools’ scene.
“I was born with a rugby ball in my hand,” he admits. “My father, my grandfather and his father before him all played rugby back at home. Dad was a representative player until he moved to Ireland at 21 and met my mother. I was born when they moved back to Auckland.” When the family returned to Ireland some years later, Carbery quickly became involved with the local rugby club and developed his game under the influential tutelage of his father.
“I played up to U19s at Athy and was generally involved with 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 were always there or thereabouts.” Despite his obvious loyalties to his local club, Carbery hoped his rugby career would lie beyond the plains of Kildare, so when the option of finishing his schooling at Blackrock College arose, he jumped at the opportunity.
“Rugby obviously played a part in my decision. There was a lot more training involved and a bit more structure than I had ever been used to. 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 – I think every one of us played provincial rugby at some level.”
Given his footballing ability, Carbery was deployed at full back as Blackrock claimed their 68th Senior Cup title. 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 Irish rugby 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. Europe was another level again. Then there was my Test debut. I’m beginning to get a grasp on it all but I’ve had to adapt my game slightly.
“Not for one moment did I think I could make the impact I’ve had. The Leinster management placed 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.”
However, despite a 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 to Bordeaux has created a void below Sexton, Cathal Marsh and Ross Byrne also targeted the understudy role. While Carbery’s season has been impressive, it has also been punctuated by injury and Byrne grasped his opportunity.
“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 2015. Ross had been playing extremely well. It’s never nice to see a mate get injured, but when my own opportunity arose, I had to take it. 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, yet the Aucklander will always fondly recall his time with the club.
“At Blackrock we had everything going for us. We were the dominant side throughout the year. While we had some serious talent at Clontarf, we didn’t like to 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. Given the ups and downs, it’s probably my greatest achievement to date.”
Despite a reserved disposition, Carbery is not short of confidence in his own game – a telling trait in an aspiring out half. Even as Joe Schmidt turned to him against the All Blacks in Chicago, the youngster remained unfazed.
“It was all such a whirlwind few months that I barely had time to let it sink in. It was absolutely amazing to get my first caps for Ireland and to do so in a winning team against New Zealand – incredible! It was annoying to get injured but I managed to get on the road to recover quite early. Now my 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 and Ireland deserves – and he knows what your objective is!”
Richard McElweeBack to News