If you’re too small for it, that is. Hype kills players who were never ready to wear it. We all know a few who had the moniker of the Next Big Thing thrown on them from an early age only to fade away from the elite level predicted for them. Some went on to have very decent careers but through an unlucky dip of injury, form, inability to adapt to the step up in levels and just plain old withering under the spotlight, they never became who everyone thought they might be. To be crystal clear, there’s no shame in that. Young players don’t control the narrative around them.
But one of the things that gets me about hype “killing” young players is that you never hear it about the guys who go on to fulfil that promise. Your Beauden Barrets, your Conor Murrays, your Tadhg Furlongs, your Maro Itojes all had significant hype about them all the way from the ground up but it didn’t stop them from becoming elite because, to be elite, you have to handle expectation from a very young age. Sometimes I think it’s easier to have people doubting you because you’ve got an external force to work against. When you get labelled with “yeah, he’s a potential 50 cap international” at a young age, that kind of belief in your ability can strangle you more than it helps you.
So imagine what Joey Carbery must have felt when news broke of THE Graham Henry saying “there’s your out-half for the next 10 years” when on a two-week consultancy right before Carbery’s breakout season and right after Carbery had dominated for Clontarf in an AIL final earlier that summer. That Carbery managed to navigate that hype to become someone Leinster were angry to lose last summer is a testament to his character. I’ve covered a lot about what Carbery might do for Munster – here, here and here – but what has he done for Munster so far?
Let’s have a look.
Carbery has made six starts at 10 in the last six games and has racked up 507 minutes in the position total since he made his debut off the bench against the Toyota Cheetahs. He has scored 3 tries, 18 conversions, 5 penalties and made five direct last passes that lead to tries and been heavily involved in a good few others.
As far as initial impacts go, I’m comfortable in saying that Carbery’s has been immediate and substantial.
That isn’t to say that he has been error-free in those 507 minutes but for a guy stepping into a position as a go-to, #1 guy in a province with the expectation of Munster, it’s been pretty good. Carbery isn’t the finished product – few are at 22 going on 23 – but the start he’s made at Munster has been hugely encouraging.
Use of Space
Let’s have a look at some of Carbery’s work off of first phase.
This is a blindside loop play where we sneak Conway from inside Carbery on the first pass to loop around the outside edge on an overload run. Carbery is a key part of stitching both parts of this sequence together.
Carbery’s role in this instance is to put the two parts into action by (a) feeding the initial hit up and (b) assessing and executing the edge play.
The first pass is narrow enough to commit Ospreys to a narrow hit up on Carbery, Goggin and Cloete’s initial lines.
The second pass happens at the exact time needed to spring the outside edge option to Conway. The step up from 12 and 13 means that Carbery has to pass early to activate the space, rather than go for a shot at the gain line that could kill the movement.
He assesses the play in front of him, makes the decision and then executes without taking any unnecessary movements. This efficiency of motion is a large part of the improvement that Carbery has brought to the position.
Here’s another example;
There are three parts to this movement – Carbery’s angled attack line from first receiver, Arnold’s holding line off his right shoulder and Williams loop line with Haley. Carbery has to sell the possibility of a break with his footwork and enough pace close to the gain line, while also selling the possibility of a narrow tip on to Arnold with enough plausibility that it holds the defender on Arnold’s line while actually prepping the pass to Williams coming around on the loop.
The footwork Carbery uses on this loop play looks extremely similar to the flutter step work he uses here.
He shortens his step before contact and then power steps against the defensive drift. This earns a penalty for a high shot and it’s a constant reminder of the ability Carbery has to provide two extremely credible options – a break and a pullback – that forces defences to narrow on his channel.
Carbery’s ability to narrow defences and then have the lateral pace to elongate his line to be the one to take advantage of that narrowing is a key part of his work on the set piece. Carbery holds the line at 10 off the scrum, taking care not to drift too far from his heavy forward support.
Once he feeds Scannell at the very last minute, he slides away to take the next possession and put Conway into space on the next phase.
He narrows the defence with his punch decoy with Scannell.
He then slides outside the Ulster cover to utilise the four options available to him – a carry of his own, an inside ball to Wootton, another narrow punch option to Goggin or the pass to Conway.
His attacking reset speed from the first ruck produced by Scannell’s narrow carry allowed him to be in place to get a decisive second touch in this sequence and put a man into attacking space.
That ability to challenge and hold a floating midfield defensive pod is something Munster have based a few of their attacking schemes on – here’s an example from earlier in that Ulster game that shows Carbery using the Wootton inside, Goggin and Conway outside option with a feint.
Munster’s break in this instance was designed around Carbery’s floating point in midfield. The selling of the inside pass created the space for Keith Earls to advance the play after Goggin’s pass.
His pace and sale of the inside pass created the sticking point for the Ulster midfield for Munster to play around.
That created an incremental outside break that allowed Munster to make a good gain up the field. The scheme off of this maul break hinges on Carbery’s ability to float in that centre-field spot, draw a reaction from the defence, and play off that.
His work on the set-piece has been based on his ability to use his step, pace and breaking ability as a means to split the defence’s attention between defending the narrow break or drifting onto a wide pass.
Deep To The Line
Carbery’s pace and elusiveness have been a constant factor in his initial eight appearances in red. That shows up on the set piece, as above, but also in phase play and in transition. His ability to attack the “B” defender off all kinds of ruck positions is a constant threat. Here’s his work off a short side ruck;
This is a pretty good example of Carbery attacking a front row forward in a drift position close to the touchline. Carbery’s initial stuttering footwork and ball in two hands carrying profile mean that the outside defender can’t narrow in on his line, so the tighthead prop has to cover the space solo and Carbery earns a penalty for a sloppy tackle.
When Carbery spots a possible opportunity to attack a heavy forwards defensive positioning in space, he isn’t afraid to have a real chop off them. In the below GIF, he sees the Ospreys front row in the A, B, C position.
If the pass from Williams is to the outside shoulder I think we’d see Carbery go after the space outside Black #1 and inside Black #13 but Beirne’s decoy line into the Ospreys pillar defence is deliberate – it gives Carbery an option to run back against the grain, something he does quite often, looking for an entangled defender and disrupted space.
That profile – Carbery running onto a short side ruck flat to the gain line – is where he’s probably most dangerous. His pace and step have to be respected at first receiver and that brings the outside into play. His carry of the ball in two hands means he’s a constant conundrum. Watch the quality of the pass from Carbery at the start of this sequence.
There’s zero fat on that ball. It’s fizzed perfectly to Sweetnam, exactly in line to outside shoulder to Sweetnam doesn’t have to adjust shape in a way that adds time to the passing sequence. Carbery’s running line ensures that Gloucester can’t just drift out either, which makes the pass quality even more devastating.
When he’s working with a screen – either behind one or in front of one – his ability to float from ruck to ruck making decisions on depth are usually very good. Watch the way that Sweetnam and Carbery slide across the pitch here, with Carbery leading a hit up of three forwards in midfield while Sweetnam steps out of the pod to loop around the outside. Watch it a few times.
The pullback to Sweetnam is made by Carbery going right to the line after feinting a step and using O’Mahony as that narrow punch option. Only a lucky swing of the arm from Banahan prevents Conway from getting a shot at a 22m shot down the trams.
That footwork, combined with the ball in two hands, created the opportunity outside. This, in the build-up to Arnold’s try, could have easily blown the move with hasty work from #10. Have a look at how it went through.
Once Beirne pulls this back to Carbery, the low-quality option would be for Carbery to immediately fire this ball onto Arnold. If he did that, he’d be setting up Arnold for a man and ball tackle that might have ended in a high-risk ball transfer, a turnover, or even an intercept. Instead, Carbery took an extra few seconds to draw out the defenders into space so Arnold would get an inside shoulder to attack. It’s a small thing but it’s the difference between a try and two or three more phases that might be a try, maybe.
In these finishing sequences, Carbery is really effective. Watch him step into the second layer here and use that speed, agility and ball in two hands to go around the corner for a try.
He never lets the defenders off the hook. They can’t drift out, they can’t risk sitting on his line, and Carbery just drifts in for an easy, low fuss score.
His closeness to the gain line and willingness to tease out a defence is a quality that Munster will really look to push on as he beds further into the side.
Addition of Width
Carbery’s pace and passing ability off of both sides have brought the extra elements of width to Munster’s play that would have been the plan when signing him. When you couple that with Rory Scannell’s left-footed kicking ability from the second layer, you have a way to dramatically increase the attacking range in the backfield.
Essentially, Munster can get a chase ball situation on the opposite side of the pitch while committing defenders in the middle.
When Carbery took this ball on the pullback from Kilcoyne, he was able to put Scannell into a position where he had three attackers on two edge defenders with a width advantage in Goggin’s touchline position.
Carbery is also really good at finding deceptive width on relatively harmless looking alignments. Watch how he finds Stander on the edge of the pod here, before resetting on the next phase.
Carbery saw the blitz and hit the man best positioned to carry around it with a superbly paced and directed pass. That ability to fling passes at great pace and accuracy makes Munster’s work in the second layer more dangerous.
This pullback to Scannell with two decoying forwards exposed Gloucester on the outside edge and a better pass from Scannell – his is a bit floaty and inside shoulder – might have given Haley a look at beating the blitzing defender and getting Conway away up the touchline.
Carbery’s passing range and pace extend Munster’s attacking width and, as a result, the range of rucks we can support across the field. This is an area of the game that we’re working on – you can see it on the pitch and I’ll go into a bit more detail on this another time – but Carbery’s pace and passing range is a vital part of it.
In the tight confines of Sandy Park, kicking was always going to be important. Along with getting good length on Munster’s penalty opportunities, Carbery brought his tactical kicking game to the fore when he got a chance to. Watch his tight line on O’Mahony to start with, followed by quick hands, an even quicker reset and a superb, low angled left-footed kick down the touchline.
He brought the same kick out against Gloucester – again, a short side ruck that drew out the defenders and a left-footed stab around the corner that stood up for Sweetnam to claim.
It’s not the first time this season that he’s gone for that angle off his left.
But that’s not all – he can also kick with his right leg and does it to the same standard. This was on penalty advantage and didn’t land as he’d have liked for Sweetnam but worst case scenario, Gloucester were taking a throw on their own 5m line.
His ability to kick off either foot is a massive advantage.
That range of skills is something that Munster have only begun to explore.
Carbery’s running ability and close quarter handling is no more visible than when Munster are attacking in transition, be it off breakdown or kick return. Carbery’s instincts in transition events are absolutely superb.
Look at his movement here the minute that O’Mahony intercepts;
He elongates the play to make lanes of running, he fixes the defender before laying a decent pass off to Sweetnam and then runs an offload line before cleaning out the ruck as the first man. Carbery’s positioning in the backfield on certain defensive sets means he’s in prime position to attack the opposition on a kick return – something that he’s done in devasting fashion.
A guy who can run like this against a misaligned kick defence is a dangerous proposition. Again, he only switches to a ball in one hand when there’s no defender to influence. When he comes close to the fullback, he grips the ball in two hands again to sell the left/right option.
His kick through, dropped at pace onto his right foot, is a hair away from coming off.
When the play resets, Carbery is there to add the finishing touch for Conway in the corner with a typical short side surge, step and pass.
His instincts in these situations, coupled with his pace, acceleration and stepping ability, make him supremely dangerous. He spreads the play in the below GIF – ensuring the man is fixed before Goggin takes possession – and then watch his running as he tracks.
He finished this off from the halfway line with the pace of a back three player. On breakdown transition, he’s equally as effective, with his close-range handling and offloading skills. He makes the initial tackle here, before realigning to put Conway away down the touchline.
He’s had a few defensive issues – against Cardiff (although the problem was more to do with the tail gunner on the lineout in that instance) and with a slip against Ulster – but he’s been quite good other than that.
His front up tackling has been technically excellent with low lasso hits where possible – see the above GIF for an example of that – and when thoroughly examined, as he was against Exeter on first phase, he wasn’t found wanting.
He tackles like a guy who doesn’t need to smash someone to know how to be effective. He just takes a leg here and stalls the carrier enough that others can help finish the job.
He’s mostly positioned at the edge of the defence on the shorter side of the play or in the backfield for transition, but when called upon in a scramble, he uses his pace and understanding of angles well.
He gave away a penalty right after this for just taking Twelvetrees out before the ball, but you have to admire his pace and tracking to make this stop.
Carbery is solid defensively, without being a defensive flyhalf in the same vein as Sexton or Farrell but he doesn’t have to match either of them there to get where he needs to be.
So is it hype?
With Carbery, very little of his hype is undeserved. He’s good, very good, but we don’t know how good he could yet become. He’s got the basics, he’s got the extras that all great players need, he’s got elite physical ability, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve and the confidence to use them.
This is a kid who helped close out the All Blacks a few months into his first full pro season. This is a guy who had the stones to leave the European champions to make something of his own elsewhere when he felt he deserved better than what he had.
From what I’ve seen of Carbery so far, I’m hugely encouraged – and we haven’t even seen him with Murray yet. There have been errors, yes. Defensive, four or five poor pass options, a few bad executions and a few poor kicks but these would be expected from a 22-year-old flyhalf, no matter how talented. His The sky is the limit when it comes to Joey Carbery, be it in red or green. Will he reach those heights? Only time will tell. Can he become a high percentage goal kicker? Can he handle the rigours of analysis as the season develops? Can he add more strings to his bow tactically and intellectually? We’ll see. He’s not there yet but he’s on the road and driving a Porsche.