up 10

With Joey Car­berry now in the driv­ing seat at Mun­ster, the bat­tle to suc­ceed Jonathan Sex­ton is well and truly un­der way

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY CHAMPIONS CUP - Gavin Cum­miskey

Jeremy Staunton was so prodi­giously gifted that War­ren Gat­land took the teenager on tour of Aus­tralia in 1999 ahead of a 22-year-old Ro­nan O’Gara.

Red-cheeked fumes bil­low from the pages of O’Gara’s 2008 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “The re­al­ity was that Staunton was on a fast track and I was be­ing left be­hind. He still hadn’t played for the Mun­ster se­nior team but he was be­ing talked up as the new sen­sa­tion of Ir­ish rugby. Was I en­vi­ous? Of course I was.”

Hell hath no fury like this Corko­nian scorned. “Jeremy was stronger than me but in ev­ery other way I be­lieved I had the mea­sure of him. I felt I had the edge over him men­tally.”

Pre­sum­ing these heady Sex­ton days will pass, suc­ces­sion plan­ning un­folds across Euro­pean fields in Oc­to­ber and De­cem­ber. His­tory be­ing the great­est teacher, a pre­view of Joey Car­bery’s fu­ture re­quires retelling of his pre­de­ces­sors in­ter­link­ing sto­ries to show the dra­matic dif­fer­ence from past to present.

Lib­er­ally speak­ing, rugby turned pro­fes­sional on this is­land in 1996 and, re­mark­ably, the Ire­land No 10 jersey only knows three res­i­dents; a trio of stub­born souls dom­i­nated for 23 sea­sons.

It was on wild­fire Euro­pean days that David Humphreys spear­headed Ul­ster to glory in 1999, herald­ing O’Gara’s newly minted hall of fame era which led di­rectly to the as­sas­sin’s ar­rival on Croke Park sod in 2009.

O’Gara climbed in­side the brains of Ire­land coaches, Ed­die O’Sul­li­van and later De­clan Kid­ney, to sur­pass Humphreys (72 caps) in 2003 and deny Sex­ton smooth pas­sage dur­ing the failed 2011 ex­pe­di­tion to the World Cup sum­mit.

But mon­u­men­tal Cham­pi­ons Cup af­fairs were when the true iden­ti­ties of these su­per he­roes were re­vealed. Cameo Ire­land out­halves through­out this pe­riod – Eric El­wood, Ian Madi­gan and Paddy Jack­son – made fleet­ing im­pacts on the club scene.

With the road cleared by Madi­gan’s cho­sen ex­ile and Jack­son’s ban­ish­ment to Per­pig­nan, the heir ap­par­ent is un­de­ni­able.

Any 22-year-old needs time to learn his trade and rugby’s in­creas­ing risk re­moves any guar­an­tee but Car­bery – stand­ing two years younger than Sex­ton the con­queror of Murrayfield in ’09 and a year shy of O’Gara’s Twick­en­ham melt­down in 2000 – car­ries heavy ex­pec­ta­tion to show­case his fly­half tal­ents in un­for­giv­ing strongholds like Ex­eter and Cas­tres.

Sur­vival through win­ter, and noth­ing more, would in­form us that Sex­ton’s boots are fil­l­able should the 33-year-old’s body fal­ter be­tween now and the 2019 World Cup. That’s why Car­bery was moved to Lim­er­ick by Joe Schmidt. That and the fact that the orig­i­nal un­der­study was sup­posed to be en­ter­ing prime years in Belfast.

Defin­ing sea­son

IRFU chief­tain David Nu­ci­fora re­fuses to rule out Jack­son’s re­turn home in 2020 but, dur­ing this defin­ing sea­son for Schmidt’s Ire­land, no­body is look­ing past Car­bery.

Ev­i­dence sup­port­ing Ross Byrne’s can­di­dacy re­mains one-di­men­sional, with Jack Carty and Billy Burns ap­pear­ing as Art­ful Dodgers in Bill Sikes do­main (even Sex­ton has toned into a Tommy Hearns-type wel­ter­weight).

Car­bery’s ex­plo­sive­ness and pass­ing range makes his slight­ness ir­rel­e­vant, sim­i­lar to All Black gem Damian McKen­zie, but a cau­tion­ary tale is worth re­call­ing.

Staunton was a pow­er­ful Gar­ry­owen-bred out­half – six foot, 15 stone – and, de­spite only turn­ing 19, there he sat on bench in the Su­bi­aco Oval in June of 1999. The mo­ment past with­out him. Staunton fi­nally played for Ire­land on that same Perth patch in 2006, with four other caps trick­ling his way against Samoa in 2001 (at full­back), on the 2005 Ja­panese tour and fi­nally against Ar­gentina in June 2007 when, seem­ingly, O’Sul­li­van was invit­ing him to nail down the va­cant un­der­study role. By then Staunton had flown the Mun­ster coop, never man­ag­ing to con­vince Kid­ney of his value be­hind O’Gara and, re­mem­ber, this was be­fore a shadow out­half be­came es­sen­tial.

It was also be­fore the ob­vi­ous idea of flow­ing re­sources over pro­vin­cial lines be­came stan­dard prac­tice. Staunton’s only sea­son at Har­lequins (2005) ended with the Lon­don­ers’ exit from the Premier­ship but Wasps took him in, and there was an RDS ap­pear­ance in 2008 when he fell foul of one of O’Driscoll’s ab­nor­mally bril­liant tries when the ball was vi­ciously poked

from Staunton’s grasp. The end of a ca­reer that ini­tially promised so much came at Le­ices­ter in 2012 and the 38-year-old went on to teach Maths in Castle­knock Col­lege.

Point be­ing, Ir­ish pro rugby in its in­fancy tended to ad­here to rigid sys­tems and some tal­ent was lost or went un­nur­tured. The trend seemed to be con­tin­u­ing when Ian Madi­gan joined Bordeaux, he’s now at Bris­tol, but in fact this cleared a bot­tle­neck for Byrne and Car­bery to rise and grow.

Car­bery eas­ily could have felt sim­i­lar Staunton pains at Le­in­ster, danc­ing from full­back to stay rel­e­vant yet ul­ti­mately lan­guish­ing be­hind Sex­ton and Byrne. At­tempts to shift him to Ul­ster, with Jordi Mur­phy, were wisely re­buffed but Mun­ster’s po­ten­tial was enough for this Kiwi surf child to catch the south­ern wave.

Right­ful suc­ces­sor

Now all he has to do is re­veal him­self as the long-awaited and right­ful suc­ces­sor to O’Gara. There have been mit­i­gat­ing fac­tors in Mun­ster’s, and in­di­rectly Ire­land’s, search for the next great out­half. Kerry na­tive JJ Han­ra­han has failed thus far to strum a co­her­ent rhythm and Tyler Bleyen­daal ar­rived in 2015 with a se­ri­ous neck in­jury that has cursed him ever since. His­tory is the great­est teacher. To put all the fo­cus on Car­bery in this un­cer­tain era for limbs and cra­nium is need­less – see his three-month hia­tus af­ter run­ning into a Fi­jian prop – but Byrne is per­haps a bet­ter com­par­i­son to Staunton as his cur­rent sit­u­a­tion be­hind Sex­ton is sim­i­lar to what Staunton could have been to O’Gara. Still only 23, Byrne looks nicely po­si­tioned, un­less Ciarán Fraw­ley or Byrne’s younger brother, Harry, usurp him.

“Go­ing to Aus­tralia with Ire­land was a big step for Ross,” said Stu­art Lan­caster. “I know he didn’t get the game time he wanted but his con­fi­dence from be­ing in that en­vi­ron­ment has shone through since com­ing back to Le­in­ster.

“He’s got the best men­tors in Johnny and Felipe Con­tepomi that a young out­half could want – his play­ing win­dows are go­ing to come, and his abil­ity to take ball flat to the line and put run­ners into space and holes have all come on. It’s about de­liv­er­ing in big games now, and he did that for us last sea­son. I think he can make an­other leap.”

So who will be­come the next res­i­dent 10? “I won­der is that the right ques­tion?” Gor­don D’Arcy coun­tered. “Are Ire­land al­ways des­tined to have an out­half of the cal­i­bre of Humphreys, Rog and Sex­ton? There is a plethora of tal­ent com­ing through.

“Ross is learn­ing from the mas­ters, Sex­ton and Con­tepomi, and the con­sis­tency he dis­plays is a rare virtue. I am also gen­uinely in­ter­ested in Ciarán Fraw­ley, he could be a spe­cial player.

“Eleven months out from the World Cup, Car­bery’s move seems like it will pay div­i­dends. So, could we en­ter an era where we have three or four world-class 10s vy­ing for the same spot? That would be a very nice place to be.”

Lan­caster en­hanced this nar­ra­tive when asked to dis­cuss a po­ten­tial Car­bery ver­sus Byrne fu­ture as we set­tle into the old com­par­i­son Ir­ish peo­ple so en­joy (Ward/Camp­bell, Sex­ton/O’Gara).

Step down

“It could be. I’ve also been very im­pressed with Jack Carty at Con­nacht. We made sure all our at­ten­tion was on him be­cause he is so in­stru­men­tal in Con­nacht’s at­tack­ing shape. You wouldn’t rule oth­ers out but start­ing for your prov­ince, by the na­ture of the beast, [is nec­es­sary] as there is only four fly-half slots but you’ll have to per­suade Johnny to step down.”

In con­trast to Schmidt stat­ing Sex­ton’s two years in Paris with Rac­ing 92 im­pacted upon his longer-term dura­bil­ity, last sea­son Lan­caster half-jok­ingly par­al­leled him to a 41-year-old Tom Brady. “I think he is start­ing to be­lieve it!” Low­er­ing the tackle line could add four, five, six sea­sons to an al­ready epic ca­reer.

“I’m read­ing up on him [Brady] ,” said Sex­ton last sum­mer, “and try­ing to fig­ure out how to pro­long my ca­reer as long as pos­si­ble.”

Mad­ness or just mod­ern man. “It seems it is go­ing to be his de­ci­sion,” D’Arcy added. “As he fig­ures out how to be­come im­mune to ev­ery – ath­lete’s worst friend – time.” Win­ter will re­veal so much more.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: INPHO

Lead­ing No 10 con­tender to suc­ceed Sex­ton, JoeyCar­berry, with a strong sup­port­ing cast bit­ing at his heels – from top right Le­in­ster’s Ross Byrne, the ex­iled Paddy Jack­son, and Con­nacht’s Jack Carty

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