Emerging from the shadows
Joey Carbery is used to change and is already showing the benefits of his latest career move
SHOES and socks. That’s what Joey Carbery remembers about his 11-year-old self coming to Ireland from New Zealand. As in, everyone here wore them going to school. Moreover, they kept them on when they got there.
In Dargaville, on the north island of New Zealand — a picturesque spot, in touch with nature — the first thing kids would do in the morning when they got to school was kick off their sandals and go barefoot. Not in Athy, sonny.
“I came over here and everyone was wearing socks and shoes,” Carbery recalls. “That was the big thing for me at the start, having to wear shoes and socks, but then the weather was colder, so . . . I remember that kind of struck me but other than that, I was pretty young.”
It’s a hell of a shift to have your folks tell you one day that the life you’ve known, the friends you’ve been growing alongside and heading to the beach with, were about to be filed under ‘P’ for previous. And you were heading for the other end of the world, to a spot well removed from sand and water.
At least the young Carbery and his two siblings were familiar with their heritage given his dad Joe and mother Amanda are natives of the heritage town in south Kildare. Still, it should have been a humongous wrench. He took it in his stride.
Joey Carbery has proved himself pretty versatile, an adaptability well beyond being able to play nine, 10 or 15 on a rugby field. Soon after the family moved to Athy he was part of a handy youths side with Athy RFC that challenged the best clubs in Leinster on their way up. Recognised by the North Midlands regional section of Leinster he accelerated his development in his last year of secondary school by switching to Blackrock College.
From the local secondary in Athy to boarding in Blackrock was a massive jump — even if fellow Kildare man Jeremy Loughman had made the journey the year ahead of him. He didn’t blink.
A couple of seasons later he was in UCD and struggling to get game time behind Ross Byrne. So he hopped across the river to Clontarf where he was the undisputed star of the club’s All Ireland League success in 2016. His man of the match performance in the final against Cork Con was name-checked afterwards by the watching Joe Schmidt. Sorted.
The only problem was the road block again presented by Ross Byrne. This time it was at Leinster. To compound the issue, Schmidt was desperate for Carbery to get access to number 10 so that Ireland wouldn’t go to another World Cup with Johnny Sexton’s understudy not having enough top class rugby under his belt at outhalf, as was the case with Ian Madigan in 2015.
What unfolded at that point was the soap opera with Carbery in the lead role and Ulster and Munster featuring as the likely locations for the shifting star. The episode with the highest ratings climaxed in a scene where Joe Carbery senior and junior were surreptitiously snapped having coffee with Joe Schmidt in a very busy restaurant on Dublin’s southside. Social media picked up the ball and ran with it at record speed. The heat of public attention reached boiling point for the Carbery family, and not just their pin-up boy.
“Throughout the whole move and the whole process for the two months leading up to it, I was talking to them a good bit. He (his dad) would have been in on everything so regardless of it getting into the media, he was involved from the start anyway. He was there, walking me through the steps. It was a bit annoying that the picture got out there but I suppose that’s what you get for going into a restaurant to do the meeting.
“He was always a great help and it’s very important to have people in my corner who I can go back and talk to, and he was probably the main one to be honest. I don’t know how many times I got asked what I was doing but he got asked a similar number of times. He works in Leinster (as a coach) as well and I’d say it was a touchy subject for some people up there. My whole family got asked the whole time. It wasn’t nice, but I suppose it’s just what you go through.”
So he went through it, and soon enough he was reaping the benefits of the move to Munster. They may be unique in Europe in the number of players who can play 10 for them currently — Tyler Bleyendaal, Ian Keatley, JJ Hanrahan, Bill Johnston and Rory Scannell are in that little club — but in the first two months of the season he started six games in a row at 10 having got just one there from 14 starts with Leinster in 2017/’18.
“Yeah, I always knew that I’d made the right decision and now it’s proven that I made the right decision because it was purely based on game-time at 10 and I’ve got it. And I feel like my game has improved because of it.”
All we need now is to tune in to the feature attraction: Conor Murray and Carbery at halfback for the first time. Conveniently some other pieces in the jigsaw are being fitted into place. The sight of Chris Farrell rampaging through his return to action in Cork last weekend was uplifting. Throw into the same backline talents like Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, on top of a pack that has the outstanding Tadhg Beirne picking up where he left off with Scarlets, and you can imagine training is savagely competitive.
“It’s dangerous, but I think it’s great for the environment having that edge of competition, because everyone has to be on top form then all the time to get picked.”
After the string of starts for Munster in the Guinness PRO14, Carbery’s form was at the right pitch for what was a very promising start to Europe: drawing away with Exeter in gale-force conditions and then beating Gloucester in Thomond Park. The Exeter game was a classic in putting pressure on the 10 to make peace with the wind.
“I was happy, yeah, because it was so tough to play in. I know it didn’t look it on TV but it was definitely the worst conditions I’d ever played in so to be able to come out of there with a 10-10 draw against a really good Exeter team was great.
“You’d drop it (the ball) down (to punt) and it would come back at you! There were a few fresh-airs in the warmup and during the captain’s run. It was horrendous. Dunc — Duncan Williams — his box-kicking was incredible that day. Even the one that I kicked dead from my own 22? I didn’t kick it that hard at all but it just kept going and going and I was like, ‘Oh God’. It was incredible, so to come out of there with two points. We were very happy.”
The pay-off is in the speed his game has come on, the degree to which he can flick the right switches at the appropriate time. “I suppose it’s just the feel for the game,” he says. “Like, what the defence are doing, what the conditions are, the time in the game, the score in the game — that all comes into it and I suppose those factors then have an impact on the decisions you make. So just getting a feel for that under the pressure and in the heat of battle is really good to get, because it’s hard to replicate those conditions in training. I definitely feel that’s my biggest improvement.”
It kicked on nicely through November, culminating with an interesting job of work to be done against the All Blacks, against whom he enjoys a 100 per cent record. Two years ago in Chicago his riding instructions when coming off the bench were keep Ireland front-running for New Zealand were certain to come back hard on the final straight. This time it was the final straight when he got the nod and it was flat-out defence.
“All you want to do is do your job, with Johnny coming off, make sure you maintain and improve the standards when you get on. I suppose when you come on you have to be ready, almost to already have a feel for the game from watching it, what keys are happening. It’s great to get on at the end there and be part of it.
“They were throwing the kitchen sink at us. I think I made four tackles in three or four minutes. It was tough but we’d been geared up all week for an 80-minute game. We’d seen what they did against South Africa in the Rugby Championship. We knew that they could be at their most dangerous in the last five minutes so we had to be completely aware of that.”
It’s likely Castres are bracing themselves for something similar this afternoon in Limerick. Mid-table in the Top 14, the reigning French champions have a lot on their minds domestically. Munster, meantime, as Earls was keen to point out last week, are mad for action in Europe. For the first time in a long time they have the squad to chase that target. And their outhalf won’t be doing it barefoot.