RONAN O'GARA: In Brisbane, we may discover if Ireland have Johnny’s back

Joey Carbery, centre, and Johnny Sexton during Ireland training. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Crusaders got a week off after the Chiefs game up in Hamilton. Some of the squad went off to Fiji for R&R. I’m using the time for a bit of a recharge before heading to Brisbane today ahead of the first test.

I’ve become a professional luncher, as Andrew Mehrtens would say.

Joe Schmidt’s selection has given us all something to bite on. Anyone who goes into management rhymes off the cant about everyone inside in this dressing room being important. Plenty say it because the manual says they should, but Joe is following through on it, as he does with everything.

John Ryan doesn’t start for Munster, Rob Herring only has three caps. Yet there’s still the sense that up front is where Ireland have a major advantage tomorrow. While the two lads have plenty to prove, the options off the bench indicate Ireland will be too strong for Australia in the front five. It’s good to see Iain Henderson and James Ryan starting. The Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane is a fast, dry track. The Waratahs and Reds shared 93 points there last Saturday, a Super Rugby record between the old rivals. If you don’t control the ball, points can get away from you in a hurry.

And then there’s the Joey Carbery decision. There was a momentary sharp shock seeing the Ireland team, and that rarely happens under Schmidt. It would rarely happen too if I was coach.

The great thing about being a confirmed starter is that you get to control your week. Rugby has become so much about getting your reps in, starters getting a certain number of plays to work on during the week because everything is controlled now by S&C and the minutes a player is on his feet. Sometimes that goes too far, but that’s another day’s debate.

Generally with Ireland, Carbery’s been coming into run-throughs not knowing whether he will be coming in as a 10, 12, or 15. The scrum and out-half replacements are position specific but the other back is covering five options so he is in and out all week and doesn’t know which of the roles he’s covering. This week that was Jordan Larmour.

A year ago, in New Jersey, Carbery found out that starting a Test match was very different to playing in the RDS. He was shocked by how little time he had on the ball for clearing kicks and was charged down twice. There’s nothing like live sport because the guys in the bibs won’t go to halve you during the week. Saturday demands the cutting edge. The Wallaby wing forwards will test Joey’s sharpness tomorrow.

His selection has absolutely nothing to do with Johnny Sexton needing a rest and everything to do with smart management. What has it done? It has created massive uncertainty, in a good way, among seasoned international players. All of a sudden now, Joey Carbery is commanding headlines. If he has a stormer against the Wallabies, what is Johnny Sexton thinking?

I go back to my own place in autumn 2009 after we won the Grand Slam. Johnny has a stormer — insofar as you do — against Fiji in November on his Test debut. The following week he’s in against South Africa at Croke Park. I wasn’t even sitting on the bench against Fiji, I got the golden ticket to go away home and study the videos for South Africa a week later — which I wouldn’t be involved in.

Because Johnny is a competitor, he is going to be uneasy sitting on that bench tomorrow. It all changes quickly in professional sport. So, it’s the new Munster half-back pairing, there’s a bit of momentum to be gained here, so let them have a crack off it at Test level.

What else has happened? Joe has kept Bundee Aki and Henshaw, as physical a centre pairing as you’ll get, but how good has Garry Ringrose been? In their heads, players are doing the numbers thing now. Is it three into two on the wing (Earls a certainty), is it four into two in the centre? Ringrose glides into the space easier than any of the other Irish centres and his appreciation of space is excellent. His capacity to do the simple things well is impressive. And he’s sitting in the stands tomorrow. Joe has stuck with the tried and trusted in Earlsie and Kearney, but is he saying to Jacob Stockdale, ‘I think you need a big game here, because see Jordan there, he’s just won a Champions Cup and everyone at home is talking about him and his tries too’?

In Brisbane, we may discover if Ireland have Johnny’s back

That’s why rugby eyes will be boring a hole in Joey Carbery’s head. Because unlike other positions, Ireland do not have a replacement at this juncture for Johnny Sexton at 10. That’s the killer point. If he goes over on his ankle seven minutes into the first game of the World Cup next year, is Carbery ready? Ian Madigan thought he was ready — we all thought Ian Madigan was ready. Against France in the Millennium Stadium in 2015, Ian was a national hero, riding to Ireland’s rescue. But backing it up is a different issue. A good player can come in with adrenaline and momentum and with nothing to lose and make a big impact. Ian, to his credit, did that in the 2015 World Cup, real Roy of the Rovers stuff, tears flowing afterwards. Wow, this guy has it, who needs Johnny Sexton?

Then against Argentina in the quarter-final, we discovered, hold the phone, we do need Johnny. You suddenly realise the void he leaves. Hence, you learn buckets about Carbery as a Test 10 tomorrow in Brisbane. Schmidt really wants to win this game. They have picked Carbery because they believe he has something, but management don’t know what it is because they haven’t seen enough of him. This guy could be anything, but he’s getting a crack at one of the big dogs so on Saturday if he does well, it’s a huge positive. It’s not Georgia. Or Fiji at the Aviva. It’s Australia at the Suncorp.

The Wallaby backline is an obvious strength, flashing with danger signals if you’re an Irish player. Israel Folau is an absolute freak; some of the tries he scores, some of the things he can do. It will be interesting to see to what level Ireland persevere with the box kick. Folau is the world’s best at catching high balls. Ireland mightn’t garryowen too much but still apply aerial pressure on the Wallaby wingers. Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete are unproven under the high ball and Earlsie and Stockdale will apply serious heat. That axis hasn’t changed for Ireland. Folau is extremely gifted with a rugby ball, as is Kurtley Beale, but he’s going to have Henshaw and Aki coming at him. He won’t like that.

Koroibete is a serious athlete. When he was playing League in 2016, he did 100m in 10.7 seconds. He’s all about everything good offensively. If there’s a kick chase or a race over 90m from a charge-down, he’s going to win the race. But defensively, the Fijian still has work to do. They say what you can’t catch, you can’t tackle, but the Wallaby winger still has some work to do on his game without the ball.

Oh, and Ireland to win.


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