RONAN O'GARA: Players aren’t bits of furniture or pieces of meat

Three weeks ago, on these pages, I wondered aloud why Munster weren’t in the frame for Joey Carbery.

Evidently, they were.

There’s a lot of parties with conflicting motivations in this debate and if Ulster is reportedly off the table, it doesn’t necessarily make it a straightforward road from Athy to Limerick.

There are roadblocks still. Munster have three out-halves of their own, all Irish-qualified. Everybody is being careful with their P’s and Q’s at the moment, but Carbery’s is a key motivation here.

Wherever he plays his rugby next season, he can’t be there against his will.

However, surely the same set of values must be employed for anyone moving out of Munster to accommodate the move? We are not talking about bits of furniture here. Or a piece of meat.

That Ross Byrne is being brought on the tour to Australia by Joe Schmidt is significant in terms of where the Munster 10s currently stand in Irish terms, but as spicy as this debate is for anyone with a passion for sporting intrigue, we are talking about humans with feelings — not chess pieces we move around a board.

It does not work like that. There are sentiments, emotions at play here. Everyone should want to play for a team that matters to them.

There’s a good chance Carbery would settle in very well in Munster, and unquestionably he’s the spark that Munster fans are craving, perhaps even more than the squad themselves.

In an Ireland context, it sweetens the pot that he will be playing alongside Conor Murray even if the Ireland nine isn’t a regular in the league for his province.

However, Murray still played eight PRO14 games this season, totalling over 600 minutes.

That’s a bulk of time to be learning from the best and developing connection.

If you want to cover every angle, as Joe Schmidt does, to win the World Cup in 2019, then the Carbery-Murray tandem cannot be overlooked either, It’s a factor.

But here’s the issue that remains somewhat unaddressed. We don’t know how good an out-half Carbery is — or has the potential to be.

There are aspects of his game that needs time and work and kicking out of hand is the most significant of them.

Wherever he goes, he will need PRO14 games to be working on same, because the Champions Cup is not the best testing ground to be discovering these things when you
are looking for a 10 to direct you around the pitch.

Gametime is pivotal for Carbery and his development. He started six Leinster games in a row from the clash in South Africa against Southern Kings in mid-October to the Champions Cup game against Glasgow in Scotstoun on November 21st. But all at full-back.

Timing may also play a disproportionate role here. It’s a better fit for Carbery to Munster, where players are generally welcomed in properly.

If you are part of the Ulster set up in 2018, it feels like there’s a sense of siege mentality at the moment, which is not the worst thing from the inside looking out, but not so appealing the other way around.

A bad few months culminated last weekend in the less-than-honeyed departure from the province of Jono Gibbes.

What sport and life often tells us is that we don’t appreciate what we have on our own doorstep.

It’s only half a dozen years since Brian McLaughlin brought Ulster to a Heineken Cup final (against Leinster) but for whatever reason, the province thought it wise to bump him into an Academy role to make way for Mark Anscombe.

Ulster was telling the world “we have world class supporters, a world class stadium, and we plan to be the best rugby organisation on the planet”.

Three more head coaches have followed, but Ulster Rugby is stalling. Just because a fella has a Kiwi accent doesn’t always make him a better coach.

Ulster were unveiling blueprints and visions for world dominance. When you do those sort of things, the subsequent analysis when things go pear-shaped tends to be harsher.

Also, and critically, from a purely rugby point of view there is more stability for Carbery in Munster.

A No 10 is only as good as the people around him. That’s the reality. Johnny Sexton is a case in point, comfortable in both the Irish and the Leinster systems though they might be different. Compare those environments to Johnny as a Racing 92 10.

Who becomes odd man out in Munster were Carbery to arrive? The picture seems unclear still on the Tyler Bleyendaal injury and the jury remains out on JJ Hanrahan.

On current form, he’s not a Champions Cup-winning 10, but I’ve always been convinced there’s something more there in JJ, something that needs poking to get it out. People might think I’m off here, but I had the benefit of training with him day in, day out for a few years. Whatever’s been quenched there needs to be rekindled.

The guys here in the Crusaders also speak highly of Tyler, and they’re as good a reader of a player as you’ll get. The view has always been if he gets a consistent run, Bleyendaal can produce big. How big? The point’s been made a few times in recent weeks that you can’t win the Champions Cup without a world-class 10, but (present company excluded) a lot of those lads at Leinster, Toulon, and Saracens have been freakishly good.

One of the proudest feats of the Munster team I played on was that we got to 10 Heineken Cup semi-finals. That’s staggering consistency and while we may have lacked the killer instinct, I have no problem with that.

I sleep well in my bed at night. That you are knocking on the door every season for a decade says more about your organisation than it does about your out-half. The fixation with having “a world class 10” can be somewhat over-egged at times.

It underlines where Leinster is at that all three 10s travelling to Australia next month are from the province. The pinnacle of their season was in Bilbao a few weeks ago, but to follow it up with a PRO14 tomorrow and provide 17 to a potential tour-winning Ireland squad in Australia would be some endorsement of the Donnybrook template.

Joe will bring a very strong squad to Australia, because he knows Michael Cheika and Wallaby rugby. In Super Rugby, the Australian sides have come back knocking hard on the door of late, the Waratahs beating up on the Highlanders last week.

Clive Woodward underlined the value of winning a big test series against New Zealand and Australia prior to the 2003 World Cup. Schmidt understands the symbolism of
doing the same in June.

The ideal model over three tests would be different combinations but the unfortunate truth is that the difference between the Murray-Sexton axis and what would replace it at half-back is the difference between being favourites to win the series and not.


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