It’s worth reflecting on that as Leinster brace for a Champions Cup tie against Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens tonight because it’s not a scenario that would have seemed likely six months ago when Ian Madigan emptied his locker and left for France.
Joey Carbery was just one more prospect in an academy full of them at UCD at the time. There was Sexton at 10 and then … a steep drop.
Or so we thought.
Then Graham Henry arrived for his two-week advisory gig, took one look at the kid born in Auckland and declared that Leinster could put away the shopping list.
How right he was but the speed with which Carbery has shot from the ranks of the All- Ireland League with Clontarf last May to starting 10 with his province in Europe — and on the back of his first three caps with Ireland — makes for one of the most jaw-dropping rookie seasons in history.
Sexton’s absence this weekend was, in fairness, well flagged. The latest there, by the way, is that there is no latest.
Whatever the state of those pesky hamstrings, Leo Cullen wasn’t sharing the info. Will he be available for the return in the Aviva tomorrow week? He might, and he might not.
The revelatory aspect to it all is that there has been no hand-wringing about the Ireland and Lions 10’s unavailability. Nobody questioning whether a callow 21-year old can handle the weight of expectation on his back as he pilots the side in the East Midlands.
“He’s been very good, confident, and very calm,” said Sean O’Brien, who returns to the back row this evening after missing Ireland’s win over Australia two weeks ago with a lower limb tweak.
“He’s directed us around well this week and in previous weeks, too. He’s an excellent player, he has a bit of everything. He has a long way to go still, I think, to being the finished article, but he has a lot of very good attributes and he’s a great lad as well.”
Carbery has demonstrated a Zen-like calm already, following up a debut run against Glasgow last season with a string of Guinness PRO12 outings this term and two composed displays in Europe — against Castres at the RDS and away to Montpellier, the latter when subbed on for Sexton.
“He works incredibly hard, first and foremost,” said Cullen. “He clearly loves the game. I talked to his father quite a bit recently and he said that as a kid he always wanted to be out playing, kicking the ball around and working on different parts of his game. He is a joy to coach, certainly, because he is so keen to learn, so keen to get better. He is very driven, it is very different sort of driven, than Johnny would have but they are both guys that are driven to be successful.”
Carbery is different to Sexton in style as well and a raw penchant for the unexpected may well suit Leinster as they look to break down a Saints side that has struggled badly this season but one which has remained somewhat competitive thanks to its defence.
The mood emanating from Northampton — the town as opposed to the club — is not upbeat.
Attack coach Alex King left the club “by mutual consent” in October and they have hurt themselves through their own indiscipline in recent defeats to Newcastle and Leicester.
England stars Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes return to bolster the home pack for the clash. Ken Pisi and Nic Groom return to the backs but George North has not been considered following his head injury last week and England captain Dylan Hartley starts on the bench.
Ex-Munster star JJ Hanrahan is named in the centre.
“It’s a big game, and we’ve had really good training sessions with the guys this week.
“We’ve enjoyed it, there has been a real buzz about the players,” Northampton coach Dorian West said.
The Gardens has long been viewed as one of the most imposing of away venues but even full-back Ben Foden has remarked this week about how the Saints’ patch has become a tad too comfortable a sward for visitors in recent times.
With Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and O’Brien back in the fold after their recent injuries, Cullen has been able to play a strong hand.
It’s one buttressed by Test class and experience yet balanced with the promise of youth including Carbery and Adam Byrne who makes his Euro debut on the wing.
Cian Healy, Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan, and Jamison Gibson-Park could only make the bench. Zane Kirchner, Mike McCarthy and Dan Leavy couldn’t even manage that. Such riches.
Win tonight and again next week and Leinster are within touching distance of a home quarter-final.
You’d back them to do just that.