Johnny Wat­ter­son

‘You can learn from him and you can al­ways strive and want to beat him,’ says 22-year-old

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY -

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? Which 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.

Against Fiji in Novem­ber Carbery, play­ing out­half, showed the qual­i­ties Winkel­man saw when he stuck it on Dar­ren Sweet­nam for the Mun­ster player’s first try for Ire­land.

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.

Awk­ward fall

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.

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 cob­webbed horse stalls is un­der­go­ing ex­treme ven­ti­la­tion and mak­ing all sorts of noises.

A wrapped-up Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne are also surf­ing this Jan­uary wave, bash­ing balls straight into the eye of the gusts, Sexton the rooted pres­ence in the shirt they all want.

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 bee n 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.

“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.

Sim­i­lar play­ers

“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 reti cence makes him ap­pear less con­fronta­tional, more ap­peas­ing.

There is a scene in the Lions fly-on­the-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.

Dirt

“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-to­day 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.”

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 Johnny con­trols the team and talks to play­ers in such a way that they lis­ten. It’s a big part of play­ing 10

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RYAN WILKISKY/INPHO

Joey Carbery play­ing against South­ern Kings in Port Eliz­a­beth, South Africa in Septem­ber: he hopes to make the pad­dock for Le­in­ster’s Euro­pean Cup games

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