The one question that’s been a constant in my mentions in the months since Joey Carbery’s move to Munster is “Will he fit into how Munster play or will Munster fit to how he plays?”
There’s no easy answer to that question. I suppose the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that Munster – on the evidence of the last six months of the season – don’t have a style of play that fully reflects the traits of any of our current roster of flyhalves. In my opinion, a successful style of play for a professional rugby side – as in, a style that leads to serial victories rather than the odd Youtube sizzle score – is one that perfectly dovetails with the characteristics of the core of your backline, which for me is always going to be the halfbacks, second-five, outside centre and fullback, in that order.
The relationship and combination of traits between these five core members of the backline will normally dictate how a side plays the game, with the halfbacks being the critical determining factor in the overall style closely followed by the midfield assets available and then locked in place by the traits of the fullback.
But before we get into detail on that, we have to examine why Joey Carbery ended up deciding to leave Leinster.
Would it be fair to describe Joey Carbery as being Leinster’s third choice flyhalf and second choice fullback when everyone was fully fit last season? I know there’s a bit of context to that – any PRO14 game he probably would have started at 10 for Leinster fell when he was on Ireland duty and he had an awkward two-month recovery from November to January – but even that doesn’t fully explain the apparent preference that Cullen and Lancaster had for Ross Byrne as the season progressed.
For me, it can be explained by looking at Leinster’s preferred style of play when everyone was fit in their “A1” selection at 9,10,12,13 & 15.
The dominant character this five is, obviously, Johnny Sexton. Almost everything that Leinster do is based on Sexton’s key traits; his excellent passing and kicking range, his acceleration around the corner on the loop, his durability in the carry when he runs the ball and, most importantly, his tactical ability to pick the right option phase after phase.
Sexton’s size and physicality are important to his style of play, and Leinster’s overall phase construction in loose and set play. At 6’2″ and 92/93kg, Sexton demands constant defensive attention from covering players, especially on his near trademarked “loop” run. Why does that move keep working almost 10 years later? Because when it’s done accurately – as Sexton almost always does – then it becomes incredibly difficult to defend.
Look at how tightly Sexton attacks the line outside Fardy! There’s no margin for error there on Sexton’s route or Fardy’s skillset and once the loop is completed, Sexton has Henshaw and Nacewa to work with directly. Sexton’s direct, physical running style allows Leinster to space themselves out because the ball very rarely dies with Sexton in an isolated position.
In this instance, most flyhalves are getting wiped but look at how Sexton reacts;
He rides the hit, doesn’t get snagged behind the gainline and runs up a decent carry with good support around him. When you have a 10 with this kind of physicality and durability, you can play more physically overall because you don’t need to screen off your 10 get his skills into the game.
It’s this physicality and reliability with the ball in hand, coupled with the restraint and nous of knowing when to attack the line that experience has brought him, that allows Leinster to use hitters and chasers like Henshaw and Kearney at 12 and 15, while Ringrose brings pace, passing and a creative touch at outside centre who can step in at first receiver if and when required.
Basically, Sexton’s unique physical traits allow Leinster to play a spaced out, incredibly physical game that doesn’t need to protect him. Sexton is very comfortable taking the ball to the line isolated because he knows his own ball carrying threat gives him leeway to bring his passing into the game. Look at his work here on consecutive phases;
He stays nice and square to sell the carry before bringing in a runner off his line.
This means that Leinster don’t need to employ a second kicker in the backline – your “second five” style midfielder – because Sexton rarely takes himself out of the game and, on the rare occasion that he gets drawn into a carry or ruck, Leinster reset with a few forward carries until they can go again.
What does this have to do with Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery? Ross Byrne’s physicality allows him to play in a similar way to Sexton – more comfortable stitching play together in isolation, more direct ball carrying – which means that Leinster don’t have to adjust their phase patterns.
This narrow stack is fairly typical of Leinster’s play last season, with Sexton standing in between three blocks of two ball barriers.
When Sexton takes possession on these phases, he’s usually isolated in the line facing heavy defenders where he can bring others into the game off his “heavy” running lines.
Ross Byrne, at 6’3″ and 92kg, can duplicate this narrow, physical #10 role much easier than Carbery and that meant that Leinster didn’t have to make the adjustments necessary from week to week.
Why did Leinster pick Ross Byrne to start at #10 the week after the Champions Cup final against Munster? Because it allowed them to play and train the same way in consecutive weeks.
Sexton and Byrne have the durability to play off the front into heavy traffic and bring others in off their run;
Carbery is a much smaller, pacier, agile style of flyhalf and needs a slightly different phase construction. With Leinster’s primary style winning everything available to them last season, how likely was it that Carbery would find himself competing with Byrne to play a style that inherently suits Byrne’s physical traits this coming season, even at PRO14 level?
If Carbery is in Schmidt’s plans – and that would seem to be the case – then it would make sense for Leinster to continue to build around Ross Byrne in the absence of both Sexton and Carbery. That put Carbery into a tough spot, and once he considered it, there really was only one option.
A move to Munster.
So what does that mean for both Munster and Joey Carbery?
First – we have to acknowledge that Joey Carbery hasn’t moved down here to sit on the bench or fight on a 1 for 1 basis with his competition at 10. I know we all have to pretend that it’s not the case for the sake of public utterances but he’s the current back up to Sexton a year out from a World Cup that Ireland have a chance at winning so take it that Carbery will start this season as Munster’s #10 and work forward on that basis.
What is the core backline at Munster with Carbery at #10? For me, it’s something like this;
What do we have here? The best scrumhalf on the planet in Murray, a breaking, running #10 in Carbery, a heavy carrying, second-five style 12 with a left boot kicking option in Rory Scannell, a ball carrier with massive passing range at #13 in Chris Farrell and a strike running fullback in Mike Haley.
How does this differ from Leinster? At its core, it’s width vs narrow power. If Munster can integrate Carbery alongside Scannell and Farrell, with Haley/Conway providing a strike option, we’ll be a long way to solving our problems. Leinster don’t really need a “second-five” because of the way that Sexton/Byrne play the game at #10 and it’s why they’ve gone for another hitter at #12 in Joe Tomane to duplicate what Henshaw does.
Munster, on the other hand, have a roster that implies a lot of width being used. Beirne, O’Mahony, Cronin and Cloete are all talented handlers of the ball and while Kleyn, Stander, Scannell and others provide heft, I don’t think we have the first choice selection to play a narrow, heavy hitting game in the manner that Leinster play.
What we do have is a side set up to play with width, pace and that can attack transitions and Munster need a #10 that perfectly fits in with that style to fully realise it.
I’ve gone over the pros and cons of all those players here but I think Carbery is the guy that will be charged with bringing it all together.
Last season, I felt that Simon Zebo was too dominant a ballplayer in our exits to the backfield and that took away from our ability to hurt teams up the middle of the pitch. We need a dominant #10 who can dictate the tempo of the game on his terms, rather than what’s outside him and use the fullbac position as a finishing element rather than a creative one.
Carbery’s ability to run, step and break from #10, as well as his ability to slide around the outside edge means that Munster have to play a second five style #12 – that’s Rory Scannell, Tyler Bleyendaal or perhaps a JJ Hanrahan. Why is that?
Well, if you take away Carbery’s ability to break from #10 or around the corner of a heavy screen, you kneecap a lot of what makes him such a talent. So when he makes moves like this from first receiver;
You’ll need another distributor to step in after these breaks, as well as distribute the ball from first receiver when Carbery slides around to the edge to play off Farrell/Taute.
The way that Carbery attacks the break from first receiver is inherently different than the way that Byrne and Sexton like to play and, as such, needs to be structured differently.
Sexton and Byrne are effective in manipulating tight defensive patterns with their own physicality while Carbery requires the disrupting physicality of others to break the opposition’s defensive shape if he isn’t taking the ball with momentum against a good alignment.
That’s why you’ll see Carbery behind a screen more often than Sexton/Byrne on phases like this;
The screen in front of Carbery allows the forwards to disrupt the defensive shape for Carbery to attack on a pullback pass.
This phase right after Carbery’s break from first receiver is perfect for a Scannell, Hanrahan or Bleyendaal to work off with Farrell, Haley and Earls surging for a finish.
Carbery creates different kinds of opportunities from #10 than Sexton and Byrne do, and Munster will have to set up to take advantage of them. When the opposition know that Carbery attacks from #10 in this manner, it gives you all kinds of decoy options to work with around the corner and with split receivers.
When it comes to creating space with the ball in hand, Carbery’s pace and agility flat to the gainline is well developed considering his relative lack of top-level starts at #10.
You can see the width Leinster use in this scenario from the behind-the-posts angle;
His flat approach to the gainline coupled with his square holding line and pacey pass to the edge finds space for Leinster and creates a try-scoring opportunity down the flanks. Expect to see Beirne, O’Mahony and Cloete as key parts of attacking in these parts of the pitch.
That use of width and movement from #10 will be a key part of Munster’s plan next season and Carbery’s key traits will be the crucial part. His pace, stepping ability and ability to hit the line near the edge will be a key part in how Munster attack this season but it has to be matched by consistency, vision, load sharing and communication from 12 and 13.
Carbery will have the screens, width and cover to really step up and take a hold of Munster’s attack in the coming season. Like Mo’unga for the Crusaders, I really think we’ll see the best of Carbery when we can elongate his game to get his pace and footwork into attacking positions against edge defenders.
If Munster can make that 9/10/12/13/15 combination pop in the middle of the field, we’ll be a long way to improving our lack of efficiency with the ball in hand that was exposed towards the end of last season.
Carbery’s pace and strike running ability coupled with Scannell’s “heavy 10” threat and Farrell’s size and handling ability can be a key part of our attacking development in 2018/2019. Integration is key.
If Scannell, Carbery and Farrell can get on the same page, there are no limits to how much we can improve.