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'In Johnny's head that doesn't work': O'Gara on Sexton vs Carbery

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Ronan O’Gara believes Ireland must give Joey Carbery a run of games as the starting Ireland No10 to bring on his game further rather than slot long-established star Johnny Sexton straight back into the team for the round three Guinness Six Nations match at home to Italy. Although first capped in November 2016, last Saturday’s round two game in Paris was Carbery’s first-ever Six Nations start

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Identifying a successor to Sexton, who will be aged 38 by the time of the start of the 2023 World Cup, is of massive importance to Ireland as they were found wanting with their depth at out-half at successive finals in 2015 and 2019 when the veteran got injured and missed crucial matches.  

Sexton was due to start last weekend’s Stade de France match but he tweaked a hamstring during midweek training and the No10 Ireland jersey was given to Carbery, who went on to show that at the age of 26 he now has the composure to be a genuine contender to take the shirt long-term following a number of injury-hit seasons. 

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O’Gara, who gave way to Sexton with his 2013 retirement following a four-year battle with him for the jersey, is now head coach of La Rochelle in France and he has been watching the evolution of Andy Farrell’s Ireland team with great interest from afar.  

Having seen Carbery unfazed by getting suddenly thrust in the heat of Six Nations battle as an Ireland starter last week, he believes it would be in the New Zealand-born player’s best interests to be given the chance to now start against Italy on February 27 and be allowed to build on what he did in Paris.  

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“You have to,” said O’Gara when asked during an appearance on OTB AM, the cutting edge Irish breakfast radio show, if he would leave Carbery in possession of the No10 Ireland jersey. “I firmly believe you have got to see now how he backs up his performance. The more you play in the ten jersey the better you get. Ideally, you are playing three or four games. That is what is best for Joey Carbery. 

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“I am not talking about what is best for the team here because on form Johnny is a better ten than him but in the ruthlessness of professional sport that could change if Joey got six or seven Tests in a row with the age profile, with the World Cup as the end goal. If you are playing a final tomorrow, Johnny Sexton starts. That’s for me is non-negotiable.” 

Asked what he would say as a coach to Carbery in a post-France pep talk, O’Gara added: “Staying square at the line, catch-pass, getting a second touch in attack and then I just think his kicking game and his capacity to manipulate defences is always ongoing but you have to probably give him huge credit for the fact he was able to do that with such little rugby is a huge accomplishment. 

“You have to put building blocks in place. You can’t expect Joey to go okay, he has done that game against France, now he has is back on the bench or playing for Munster and then we roll him out for the World Cup. You don’t know where his ceiling is. In that position, especially at that age (of 26), the upside to him is huge, you have got to roll him out and you have got to keep playing him. 

“In Johnny’s head that doesn’t work and rightly so because he is a competitor and two into one doesn’t go but that is where managing your players comes into it and that is very important. Up to last Saturday, there was a big difference between the calibre of Johnny’s performances and the rest of the other pretenders looking to lay claim to that jersey. 

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“What we have established after Saturday is the fact that this Test level, the top-level games away in France, in New Zealand, do not faze Joey Carbery. Athletic-wise we know he is very, very good. I suppose the biggest challenge from the outside looking in was is his kicking game good enough for the northern hemisphere because we play on wet pitches for seven, eight months of the year and that is the reality whereas down south you play on dry pitches for nearly six months of the year.

“You could see Joey’s ball skills are really, really good but his kicking game needs continuous work to be a top Test player. Was his goal kicking top-notch at the weekend? Yes, it was. Was his line-kicking from penalties top-notch? It was. Game management, did he turn the French? High balls, Hugo Keenan got on the end of one, so tactically that was very good but I keep going back to the try he created for Keith Earls (as a 2019 sub) in Murrayfield. 

“His capacity on the ball is freakish from the fact that he went through two Scottish forwards, put them on their backside, accelerated, changed the ball from the left to right, went on a kind of a slalom run and then whipped out a delicious pass for Earls to score. That is Dan Carter-esque in the fact of his running game but what needs to be established before that is just his basics, just the work needed on his basics.”

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