Shane Horgan has warned that Ireland are too dependent on Jonathan Sexton and believes there is a case for Joey Carbery to play beside the out-half in what would be a huge departure for the team under Joe Schmidt.
Horgan was among the most vocal critics of the national side during this year’s Six Nations when their form dipped alarmingly after a superb 2018 campaign which saw them claim a Grand Slam and take the scalp of the All Blacks. It was a worrying trend in a World Cup year.
“I’d like to see a proper second receiver. I don’t think that’s going to happen but I think we’re a bigger threat, whether it be a traditional second receiver at second five-eighth, as a ‘12’, or that we have a proper outlet down the short side with a full-back as a first receiver there.
“We’ve become too ‘Johnny-centric’,” Horgan explained at an Energia event in Dublin this week. “And if you look at when he goes down, all we’re doing is waiting for him to get back up again, as opposed to exploiting an opportunity that could be there.”
Such a tactical switch would create a ripple effect elsewhere, of course. Schmidt has enviable options in the centre where Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, and Chris Farrell have all excelled but none are obvious contenders for a second-receiver-type role at No.12 as envisaged by Horgan.
The idea of Carbery playing as that second creative spark has been aired before but always in the context of a start at full-back in place of Rob Kearney. Pitching the Munster out-half in at inside-centre now, with just four warm-ups games to go until kick-off in Japan, would amount to a monumental shift in focus. Horgan accepts that but it is still a ploy he would love to see.
I know it’s not like-for-like but you look at Johnny and Owen Farrell when they played together against the All Blacks, that was something special. We’ve forgotten how good that partnership was, the damage it did and how slick it was against an All Black team that couldn’t handle it.
"They just couldn’t handle it and if they had played together in all three Tests then the Lions would have won that series.
“I know Joey isn’t Owen Farrell but I’d like to see what it looks like.”
Horgan’s concerns over that Six Nations stumble were aired again, too.
The former Leinster, Ireland, and Lions back believes that Ireland’s defeat to England in the Six Nations opener, and the manner of it, was a psychological blow from which they failed to recover.
Schmidt himself gave sustenance to that opinion when admitting during the tournament that his players were “a bit broken” by it.
Horgan believes Ireland need to address a defensive system that looked passive when compared to that of England and Wales, kick more in the middle third rather than pummel through phases, and improve the connectivity between the backs and forwards.
And there is time to do all that, he feels.
But to push deeper than ever before into a World Cup will likely require all that and more again. There had been accusations of predictability made against Ireland’s attack even before this year’s downturn in fortunes, which brings us again to the suggestion that a Sexton-Carbery tandem at 10-12 could be a game-changer.
“Don’t get me wrong: there is a risk involved in it because there are a lot of people running down that No.12 channel. You line up those two guys together and each team will go, ‘right, let’s go down that channel and pound them’. Maybe they couldn’t take it but I would like to see them have a go and like to see what it looks like.
“If you have two first-receivers like that, who can play tight to the line and move the ball wide, it is a different type of rugby. If we are going to win, if we are going to do something special, you can’t do what everyone else is doing. You have to do something extraordinary and really carve out what Irish rugby is. We could do something like that but I don’t think we will.”