Joey Carbery has long been seen as the natural successor to Ireland playmaker Johnny Sexton and on Saturday he gets a chance to rubberstamp his credentials against a vibrant France in the Six Nations.
With Sexton ruled out due to a hamstring injury, Carbery now has the weight of expectation on his shoulders to deliver the team’s 10th successive Test victory when they square up against the Six Nations title favourites in Paris.
It is quite an occasion for the 26-year-old pivot to make his first Six Nations start – Sexton’s longevity having delayed Carbery’s debut until now, six years after his first start for Ireland.
It was a role he gave up on at Leinster in 2018 when he decided that shadowing Sexton was educational but that a move to Munster would provide the starting opportunity he required.
Carbery earned a recall last year from Ireland head coach Andy Farrell having gone through two years of ankle injury misery following the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
His performances in the wins over New Zealand (29-20), when he came on for the last 15 minutes and kicked three penalties, and Argentina (he started and won man of the match) in November made it crystal clear he had won the debate as to who was Ireland’s number two.
Neither Billy Burns nor Ross Byrne, who had been tried at flyhalf in Carbery’s absence when Sexton was unavailable, have had a look in. Connacht’s 29-year-old Jack Carty is now third choice.
However, for all his undoubted quality, questions remain as former Ireland and British & Irish Lions fullback Hugo MacNeill told AFP last week.
“It is imperative to have a credible, authoritative flyhalf alternative to back up Johnny Sexton, as the implications at the moment should they be without him are so huge,” said MacNeill.
“It is all about game management. There are a lot of one-sided games with Munster winning easily but the question is can Joey Carbery direct the national team in big matches in Paris and Twickenham.
“This is still unresolved.”
Sexton will travel to Paris this weekend and he has spoken to Carbery about what awaits him there.
“Anyone who has been through long-term injury knows how difficult it is,” said Carbery, who only returned recently from a fractured elbow.
“So you get to appreciate more the good things in life. I am delighted to be back injury-free and going into such a big game at the weekend puts everything into context. I am looking forward to it.”
Carbery, who will on Saturday win his 29th cap since making his debut against New Zealand in 2016, says he and Sexton are different types of players but he can still learn from the Irish captain.
“I suppose if I can pick little bits and add it to my game, I’ll be in a good place,” said Carbery last November.
Carbery, born in New Zealand but whose parents returned to Ireland when he was 11, says if all goes well he feels he can one day step fully into Sexton’s boots.
“If the team needs me to do it, I’m more than happy to step in,” he said. “If I keep working on my game and taking little bits from Johnny and keep improving and stay injury-free then hopefully I will be in a good place.
Carbery has many admirers, none more so than Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll.
“There are definitely aspects of his game to get excited about,” O’Driscoll told Off The Ball podcast last September.
“He’s an attacking threat like I don’t think we have in other 10s across the board, including Johnny Sexton.
“He’s a completely different attacking type of player than Johnny Sexton.”
© Agence France-Presse
Photo: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images