Between the idle chatter about France and the build-up to the weekend’s nicely poised Champions Cup quarter-finals, one of the most important rugby stories slipped through unnoticed this week.
Signing Joey Carbery up to 2022 is arguably the best piece of business Munster has done since they tied down Conor Murray’s future.
Perhaps it was the perception we all bought that this was a loan, a temporary little arrangement to sort an Ireland issue for the World Cup. Except, no-one stopped to consider that Joey Carbery is an ambitious young man, and those ambitions extend beyond Japan, in the autumn.
The reality (which Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster feared) is that Joey has now experienced Thomond Park. He doesn’t have that deep-blue blood of Leinster, and if you don’t get a rush from playing in Thomond Park, you don’t sign up until 2022. He has sampled, and I would say savoured, that experience, and he probably knows it will only get better, with Munster improving.
The Kiwi mentality would be very similar to Munster’s. He would appreciate, and enjoy, people stopping him on the street to chat rugby: ‘how are you getting on?’; Great to have you down here’.
In Christchurch or Wellington, it’s the same thing. There’s a real sense the locals are interested, that they’re invested in you and whether you feel appreciated. For a pivotal playing position, like No 10, having that in your pocket is half the battle. He decided on a move to a squad with options at 10, but he’s quickly made the slot his own, and he is developing a nice relationship with Conor Murray. His highlight reel for Munster is
impressive, and he is a strong contender for player of the year.
Where this leaves the succession stakes after Johnny Sexton is interesting. My guess is that, privately, Leinster management would have seethed at losing Carbery and there may have been a rupture in the relationship between player and province.
This, ultimately, had to be a Carbery decision. Leinster would have moved heaven and earth to keep him, but Joey called it. Johnny has signalled his intention to play on and Carbery was of the view that it made no sense to be kicking his heels in Donnybrook.
He’d rather play his rugby in Munster and seek the mantle of No 10 for Ireland that way.
It’s a great story for Munster, heading into their biggest game of the season. Imagine it came out this week that he was going back up to Leinster in June.
Like, ‘thanks, Munster, for being the feeder province. He’s had a good 12 months down there. Now, he’s ready to play for Leinster’. When I saw he’d committed to 2022, I thought, ‘wow, some piece of business.’
Conor is not at the peak of his powers, but that will return, believe me. He’s a competitor and, as a half-back pairing, there’s serious stardust between Murray and Carbery. Joey’s not there yet. We have identified his game-management issues already. In terms of top-level, world No 10s, he has a way to go.
The Scotland game was indicative, in the way he paid a big price for a miscalculated pass, but there’s few in the game who could set up the try he did for Earlsie. Bursting tackles, cruising speed, whipped out a beautiful pass.
One o’clock on a Saturday afternoon would not ordinarily be conducive to a crackling atmosphere, but there could be 40,000 at Murrayfield, which is as close as the ground ever gets to a test match environment. Edinburgh anticipates. It’s a moment for big personalities to lead. And leadership takes many forms.
Those who say Edinburgh blow hot and cold conveniently overlook the fact that the exact same could be said of Munster. Which Munster shows up tomorrow? I had to smile reading Richard Cockerill say Munster were favourites, because of their history, like that has any relevance to the game tomorrow.
His is a front-row mentality: We can get at these guys.
Edinburgh, as a rugby entity, is transformed: Barclay’s back to bolster a pack that is arguably as strong as Scotland’s; Mata is a freak; Watson is a serious player. They have been coming to the boil for a while.
Cockerill will tell his players this is not the Munster of old, that they have a soft underbelly. He’s right: it’s not the Munster of old. That doesn’t mean it’s an inferior squad. Here is a moment to put an exclamation point on that. Is O’Mahony ready? Is Stander set for the mother of all back-row battles? Is Conor back?
The leadership bit will just happen for Murray when he gets his groove, his playing level, back. There are leaders who believe that they’ve got to be the consistent button-pusher, the standard-setter in the dressing room, irrespective of their own form. I wasn’t one of those.
If I was going bad, I would shut up and concentrate on getting my own game in order, before telling others to do anything. In Conor’s situation, he’s hit a rocky patch, and, by that, I mean he hasn’t met his own high standards over an extended game period. So, I’d go a different road and let my rugby do the talking for me. The boys will respect him all the more.
It’s the same for Johnny Sexton in the Aviva tomorrow evening.
These are Irish internationals whose consistency has deserted them in 2019. If it’s one or two players, you can disguise it, but there’s a lot of senior Irish leaders banking on finding their groove, after returning to the provinces post-Six Nations.
Leamy, Foley, Quinny, Paulie, I knew that they’d knock the heads off someone, do whatever it took to get a result when the chips were down. It’s the reason so many non-rugby people hitched their wagon to Munster.
They related to something tangible; they related to fellas pushing their bodies to a dark place for a cause.
But because the current group wears the same jerseys doesn’t make them facsimiles of what went before. There are plenty in this current Munster group up for going deep within themselves — I like Jean Kleyn: he’s got that Munster bit between his teeth — but getting to a consistent level on the big days is the next bit.
The Edinburgh-Munster quarter-final is so difficult to call, for many reasons, but losing it puts the brakes on Munster’s momentum, and progress under Johann van Graan.
Once Munster get to a semi, subconsciously the pressure comes off. That’s the baseline. A final four is compulsory. There will be a huge sense of deflation around Munster rugby if they are losing a quarter-final in Edinburgh.
For me, the match of the weekend will be in Paris, on Sunday. Those who have a jaundiced view of French club rugby, tune in to Racing versus Toulouse.
The latter continue to be in a rich vein of form and went to La Rochelle and won last weekend. Though Racing are at home, Toulouse are favoured by many, but I think they’ll come unstuck here. Racing have their eye on the European Cup this year.
Donnacha Ryan is back and he is key to them. He knows all about Europe and getting a performance out of a pack, and Finn Russell has that bit of stardust that is crucial in one-off cup games.
This is knockout rugby now.
A different mentality.
No bonus points; just find a way to win. Last weekend, in Sydney, the Crusaders failed to play winter rugby in tough conditions. We couldn’t adapt. We tried to move a wet ball; the Waratahs played Cup rugby, a pressure game, and they completely squeezed us. You’ve got to find a way to win, but there are a few different ways to do that.
I was a bit disappointed to see it confirmed that Paulie will be leaving Stade Francais at the end of the season.
That one’s been coming, though. Stade are a bit free-range in how they do things and I’m not sure Paulie’s values were shared at the club. But it’s a valuable learning experience.
We’d often daydream about the two of us on a coaching ticket somewhere down the road and he’ll be better for this experience.
I also hope he doubles back on that statement about not being involved in a set-up anywhere next season. He needs to be out there, having his thought-process disrupted. He needs to be stripped bare. He has brilliant
ideas, but not everyone thinks the same as he does.
The world doesn’t work like that, as I’ve found out. It’s not about you: it’s about everyone else.
When I look at the callow coach who started in Racing six years ago, and what I was stepping into, it’s so far removed from how I was, and what I walked into here at the Crusaders, that it was not even comparable.
However long I stay in Christchurch, I can safely say nowhere else will match it for an incredible working environment.
The Crusaders organisation has so much stability in a business where there’s not meant to be any.
It retains such a consistently-high performance capacity, from the players to the staff to the weekly flow. I know I am the better for it, and wherever Paulie goes next, the things he’ll experience will be no load to him.
Do Munster win tomorrow? Very close. Time to stand up and fight.