Nick McCarthy is only 20 games into his senior Leinster career but the St Michael’s and UCD scrum-half has already managed to figure in some of the more unlikely storylines emanating from the club in his short time.
Scarlets V Leinster
Saturday: Parc y Scarlets, 3.15pm
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Betting: Scarlets 6/4,
Leinster 4/7, Draw 16/1
A former Ireland U20s captain and a son of ex-Connacht nine Conor McCarthy, he made his bow for his province off the bench in a Champions Cup pool game against reigning European champions Toulon in front of almost 45,000 people at the Aviva in December 2015.
Though a surprise, that was straightforward by the standards of subsequent events.
Sixteen months later and he was finally making his first start, against Glasgow Warriors, on a night when the game was delayed by the failure of the floodlights at the RDS.And then there was the out-of-the-blue trip to South Africa last September.
McCarthy was omitted from the original touring party for the province’s historic trip to play the Cheetahs and Southern Kings. Then Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park were turned away in Johannesburg due to visa glitches and the younger man got a belated nod.
And its red tape which is putting him in the spotlight again now. Leinster’s problem is this. Employment rules dictate that only two of their three Antipodeans – former Wallaby Scott Fardy and the Kiwis Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe – can feature in any one matchday squad.
Isa Nacewa, though Kiwi born and bred, played (once and very briefly) for Fiji at a World Cup and is therefore not caught in the same web but the three-into-two scenario with the others is a major concern for Leo Cullen & Co going forward.
Gibson-Park is a capable nine but Fardy and Lowe give Leinster something extra that could be the difference between decent league and European runs and solid silverware come the end of this season.
The ideal scenario, for the province, if not for Gibson-Park, would be for McCarthy to kick on considerably and establish himself as a viable deputy to Luke McGrath for the nine jersey and thus free Fardy and Lowe to feature.
And, with McGrath currently out injured with a knee injury that the club say is due to clear up in time for the European quarter-final against Saracens, this is an opportune time for the younger pretender to shine.
“Being realistic for me, it may mean more opportunities in terms of game time but I also have to work hard at my own stuff, work hard at training at getting better and put my best foot forward,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get picked on merit and not because of a rule.” He is going in the right direction.
His next appearance will bring the number of appearances for the season to 14, twice the amount he managed in the previous two campaigns combined, but he needs more generous blocks of game time.
His start against the Southern Kings at the RDS last Friday was only his second in the blue shirt and Leinster have just two fixtures, away to Scarlets and Ospreys lined up before that European meeting with Sarries in early April.
His sniping caught the eye against the Kings last week. Stuart Lancaster, Leinster’s senior coach, has stressed the need to keep defenders honest close in to the rucks but McCarthy knows his passing remains pivotal.
He’s not dissimilar in build and stature to Eoin Reddan, who was vying for the No 9 jersey with Isaac Boss when McCarthy was coming up through the ranks, but it is another Limerick man that he is looking to right now.
“It is hard to sway away from Conor Murray. I am a good bit younger than him so I’ve a good bit of time for physical development. But in terms of his basics, his passing, his kicking, he is excellent. For any young scrum-half, he is the best to learn from.”
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