Despite some uncharacteristic poor form off the tee, Johnny Sexton has had another excellent Six Nations.
Without his clutch drop-goal against the French in Round One there would be no Grand Slam decider this weekend. Heading into a World Cup year there is no doubt who our first-choice fly-half will be. But there’s no doubt either that injuries will have a big say.
At this current moment neither Ulster or Connacht are offering any back up. Down in Munster, Tyler Bleyendaal will soon become available for selection. His breakthrough year under Erasmus may have been the peak of his powers and I for one am not fully convinced he’ll be drafted in as swiftly as Aki was or Lowe will be in time to come. The mercurial JJ Hanrahan has not found himself nailing down the ten shirt under Van Graan, while mercurial is not a word you want Joe Schmidt associating you with. Ian Keatley has had a fine season so far. In fact, despite his detractors he has had a very fine career. But with all due respect, ‘fine’ can only get one so far in international test rugby.
This brings us to Leinster and the focal point of this article. A player I’m always surprised to not hear more about. Leinster will be the producer of our heir apparent, but it may not be Joey Carbery. I have worries about Carbery’s game time and exposure to big game pressure. His brief cameos and one full game against Fiji aren’t enough for someone who may have to step in and marshal the Irish pack in a world cup knockout game.
At Leinster, Leo Cullen has preferred him at fullback with Ross Byrne pulling the strings. A fine kicker from the tee (more assured than Carbery) Byrne also possesses no lack of deft passing or key decision making. His Barrett-esque cross-kicks have shown his flair all season. If this was merely the Pro14 I’d take his progression with a pinch of salt. But Byrne has deputised for Sexton in pivotal Champions Cup matches, never appearing out of place. He’s only six months older than Carbery yet seemingly receives no attention or expectation.
As we now field our third outside-centre of the tournament perhaps it’s time to recognise the extent injuries can reach and prepare for our future situation at fly-half. Schmidt has depth across the park but remains unprepared in this essential area. Jordi Murphy, barring injury, will make Ireland’s World Cup squad ahead of his Leinster teammates come 2019, not through any significant traits (Leinster have at least six viable back-rowers) but geography. His move to Ulster could prove a smart one as he will guarantee himself a run of games to prove his worth.
Byrne or Carbery should consider the same move. Such competition will only push the team forwards. Whoever takes the plunge may well reap the rewards, while hopefully, injury doesn’t have the final say.
Author: Shane Nolan
Shane is a History and English graduate of University College Cork with a keen interest in writing, rugby, and writing about rugby. He is both a follower of Munster and Irish rugby as well as an enthusiastic viewer of Super Rugby. His zest for Southern Hemisphere rugby often gets him up at 6 am to see some proper running tries and off-loads (as well as some dodgy kicking and questionable forward passes).