A lot has happened to Joey Carbery in the year since his remarkable Test debut in that historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago, though not enough to stop his drive to become one of the best players in the world.
Six months after playing for Clontarf in an All-Ireland League final victory over Cork Constitution, only a few weeks after graduating from the Leinster academy to a senior contract and just four days after turning 21, Carbery found himself replacing an injured Johnny Sexton at Soldier Field with the game on a knife-edge and nerves seriously frayed ahead of the final quarter.
That the debutant helped steady the ship after the world champions had narrowed the gap to 33-29 and then clinched the conversion of Robbie Henshaw’s game-securing try was the stuff of dreams for the New Zealand-born fly-half with an Irish mother, whose family moved to Kildare when he was 11.
Yet, Carbery has been determined since then not to make that famous day the high point of his ambitions. A regular for Leinster at full-back this season and absorbing everything he can from playing alongside the province’s Ireland and Lions starting 10 Sexton, Carbery approaches this weekend’s Test against South Africa with plenty of goals he needs to achieve having recalibrated after the lightning-fast rise to prominence.
“I still have to pinch myself about it; it is a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest,” admitted Carbery. “I couldn’t have dreamed for anything more and dreams came true that day, playing for Ireland and against the All Blacks as well, that was something I always wanted to do.
“For it to happen that quickly obviously wasn’t expected. Dreams come true.
“I was saying I want to keep building on this and hopefully in the next few years there will be more caps and I’ll improve as an individual, but the team will as well. The team we have is incredible, so I suppose reaching our potential and how we get to do it is what we will find out.
“I definitely think I have matured, both mentally and physically, I’m a bit wiser as well, as during the heat of a game, everything can (happen)... just being able to deal with it, bringing my mind back to a controlled state is something that takes a bit of time, and mindfulness is a big thing in that as well. You get better as you get on with it and I feel that’s something that has improved.”
Such success might have turned the head of a young man, but a week after his 22nd birthday, Carbery is not only grateful to his Kiwi father Joe — head coach at Athy RFC — but his own ambition for keeping him grounded.
“My dad would always tell me to pull my head in if I’m doing anything wrong, but he’s always a good man to have in my ear.
“The thing that’s probably the most [important] is just how much I want to achieve. I want to keep getting better and, hopefully, maybe, become one of the best players in the world. That would be my ambition, so if I can keep improving every day and getting better at certain things, then it will keep me grounded and that makes me want to work harder.”
Though Carbery’s preferred position is at fly-half, he does not see his season so far at full-back as detrimental, should he be required at 10 against the Springboks this weekend.
“If you know what is tough to defend as a full-back when you are defending at full-back, you will know when you are at 10 how hard it is for them where you put a ball. I do think they go part-and-parcel, hand-in-hand, both attack and defence.
“I just think that if I can keep developing my game, both at 10 and 15, being ready to play for wherever the team needs me, will put me in a better position.”
So too will continuing to learn from Sexton.
“He is very good. There are so many times after training I can go up and quiz him on what he has done and what I have done. If I sit down in front of a laptop, he might pop his head over my shoulder and just say ‘stay square here, just give more space’.
“He’s probably the best person I can learn from in the world at this stage, just on his detail, how well he knows the game. He’s such a good rugby brain.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved