So we’re just 24 hours away from Ireland’s clash with Scotland in the 6 Nations, and just 8 days away from a St. Patrick’s Day showdown with Them Across The Water (England) in Twickenham. Yesterday Joe Schmidt named his team for the Scotland clash, with 2 welcome returns to the team.
The Campile Colossus Tadhg Furlong has recovered from injury and will slot back in at tight-head. We will also see the return of Garry Ringrose at centre alongside Bundee Aki, replacing Chris Farrell who should miss the rest of the season due to injury. We also see exciting Leinster star Jordan Larmour togging out in the #23 jersey as he continues his meteoric rise.
While those are all positive selections, one of the inclusions on the bench that I have recently started to question is that of Leinster man Joey Carbery as replacement flyhalf. While there is no denying he is a talented player with a lot of potential, I’m struggling to understand the decision making process behind it.
At the moment Carbery is struggling to get much gametime at any position. He’s made a few appearances at fullback, but has had very little time playing at 10. Given his lack of gametime (his last full 80 minutes of rugby was back in October), surely this should be a sign that this should not be the guy primed to deputize at such a key position. But if that’s the case, is there anyone else that could realistically take his spot that has been playing more frequently? And since he can cover a few different positions, would any other player be able to offer that level of flexibility?
The answer to both of those questions is yes, and the man to answer them is Munster’s Ian Keatley. Keatley is a curious case of a player that was struggling to find his place until injury threw him an opportunity. Over the past few years Munster had been using him similar to how Leinster are now using Carbery. He played at fullback and centre, with a few games at 10, and he never got settled in any position. However this season a neck injury to Tyler Bleyendaal left the door wide open for Keatley to get a consistent run of games at 10, and after one or two shaky performances in the early stages he’s settled into the role nicely.
He played a key role in Munster’s progression in the Champions Cup this season, with 2 impressive performances against Leicester, the 2nd of which he kicked 20 of their 25 points in an almost perfect day. In the last game of the pool stages his kicking from hand played a big part in the rout of Castres, with his accuracy pinning the French side deep in their own territory time and time again. In more recent memory, his cameo in the 2nd half when Munster played Zebre at the start of February helped the province secure a victory in a game that they were otherwise struggling to put to bed.
A big point to note in this situation is their goal kicking. When Carbery played against Fiji last year his general play was terrific, but his kicking wasn’t great, and in the end it was Keatley, coming off the bench, that kicked the final 2 penalties to help Ireland crawl over the line in a 23-20 win. It’s also worth noting that during his substitute appearance against Wales a few weeks ago, the decision was made to have Conor Murray kick a penalty instead of relying on the boot of Carbery, which shows that he may not quite have the full backing of the coaches yet.
While Carbery can be an exciting player with the ball in his hands, his kicking can sometimes be a bit erratic, and at this level it would surely make more sense to give the backup slot to a man that has actually been playing in that position every week. Selecting Keatley would also acknowledge that he has proven over the past 4 months that he can manage a game (which is what you want your backup flyhalf to do) and hold his nerve in pressure situations. Taking all of this into account, along with current form, common sense would dictate that Keatley should be the man set to step in should anything happen to Johnny Sexton.
To dive even further into this, if you wanted to look further afield for possible replacements for Carbery, you could look at his Leinster teammate Ross Byrne. Byrne has more experience of playing at 10, and while Sexton & Carbery have been with the Ireland setup in recent times Byrne has played over 1000 minutes at flyhalf, gaining invaluable experience and gametime while Carbery has been warming the bench. Even when both are available for Leinster, Byrne has often got the nod at 10, with Carbery slotting in at fullback or at 12 instead.
Also within the last month or so Munster’s 1st choice (when healthy) Bleyendaal has become eligible to play for Ireland under the residency rules. It would be wise to see how he plays in his first few games back and not throw him in at the deep end, due to the severity of his injury, but with some strong performances for Munster he could put himself right into contention for Ireland’s summer tour.
Being realistic I think that the current trio of Sexton (obviously), Carbery & Keatley will be the 3 main flyhalfs for the next year or two, and barring some amazing displays from Bleyendaal in his first few internationals they should be the 3 that board the plane to Japan for next year’s World Cup. However I just feel that if it comes down to a last minute kick to win a game and Sexton has had to go off injured, I’d choose Keatley over Carbery any day…