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FEATURE Six Nations: How Big Joe McCarthy destroyed the French juggernaut

Six Nations: How Big Joe McCarthy destroyed the French juggernaut
4 months ago

The name of Joseph McCarthy is due some rehabilitation, and it may have just got it in the first round of the Six Nations. The infamous 1950s senator from Wisconsin saw ‘Reds [Communists] under the bed’ everywhere he looked, and sculpted a political career out of defamation, demagoguery and discord.

The new sporting version is doing precisely the opposite in Ireland over 70 years later. On the evidence of his early-season performances with Leinster and the match in Marseille against France, Andy Farrell may have found the missing piece of his puzzle. At 22 years old, 6ft 6ins and 120kg, ‘Big Joe’ is bringing the blowtorch physicality which has failed to ignite in Irish provincial and national packs on several very big occasions indeed.

As his colleague in the Leinster tight five, Dan Sheehan, mused after the action in the Côte D’Azur: “[He is] young, physical – excited about every physical point of the game.

“He’s able to rip teams apart on his own, it seems.

“We just need to hold him back, that’s the main problem!”

Joe McCarthy
Joe McCarthy celebrates with his parents Joe and Paula, and brother Andrew, after Ireland’s sacking of Marseille (Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The key to the construction of successful sub-units within a team is synergy – finding the right balance of energies and attributes to make the sum of the whole greater than the individual parts.

At the World Cup and in the couple of seasons prior to it, Ireland fielded an above-average combination in the shape of Munster’s Tadhg Beirne, with either Leinster’s James Ryan or Ulsterman Iain Henderson alongside him. All three are British and Irish Lions standard as individual forwards, but neither Beirne-Henderson nor Beirne-Ryan triggered that all-important synergy.

As players equally comfortable on the blind-side flank and in the middle row, Beirne and Henderson were too similar in their tables of strengths and weaknesses, and Ryan did not provide enough of a contrast to shift the paradigm. All three are by nature number five locks or second/back-row hybrids, and the hard-nosed physical edge of a true number four was missing.

McCarthy’s point of difference is the physical pressure he brings to bear at the tackle and post-tackle, right up the middle of the ruck.

The arrival of McCarthy on the international stage has consigned that micro-issue to the dustbin of history. With the pairing of Beirne and McCarthy in harness at the Orange Velodrome, the synergy first crackled, then blazed into being.

With the lineout calling shifted to Beirne, Ireland won 100% of their own throw while pinching four French feeds. The natural order of things is for Beirne [five own-ball takes and two steals] to be the main receiver-poacher, with Mcarthy [two takes] in support.



On their own ball, Ireland’s most athletic leaper [Beirne] is supported by the strongman with the greatest reach [McCarthy] on rear boost to provide a slick platform for the exit. At defensive lineouts, Big Joe is quite happy doing the heavy lifting for others, leaving the aerial ballet to his brothers-in-arms Beirne [back pod] and Peter O’Mahony [in front].

The sense of complementary traits is the same on the carry. McCarthy prefers to chew up yards off nine with straight-ahead power, while Beirne is a fine line-runner further out into midfield, picking his spots off the second pass. In the balance between tackle busts and clean breaks, McCarthy picks up more of the former [3-0 versus Les Bleus] while Beirne enjoyed more of the latter [1-2].



In the second instance, McCarthy is removing his head from a cleanout at the previous ruck, just in time to watch his second-row partner carve through off the delayed pass from new 10 Jack Crowley. Beirne is effectively functioning like a good number eight or inside centre as the tip of Ireland’s three-pronged ‘power I’ formation.

With a smart hole-picking forward ahead of two backs, the choice for France’s estimable Jonathan Danty [in the red square] is unenviable. Does he stay on Beirne, or shift out on to the backs behind him? The centre is paralysed by indecision and Beirne needs no second invitation to cruise through the gap for the score.

The fusion arguably works even better in defence than attack. Along with O’Mahony, Beirne is one of the two best pilferers on the deck in the Ireland XV. McCarthy’s point of difference is the physical pressure he brings to bear at the tackle and post-tackle, right up the middle of the ruck. He makes France’s big men work as hard as possible after they think they have won the ball from the initial cleanout. That has been a valuable addition to the arsenal of Leinster and Ireland over the past two seasons.



If Les Bleus fondly believed the second row would be one of their biggest areas of advantage, events on the pitch rudely abused them of that notion. Paul Willemse was sent off, and his partner Paul Gabrillagues never gave the remotest of hints he was equipped to fight a lone battle.

In the first example, McCarthy’s drive straight up the guts splits him away from Uini Atonio, and the pressure forces Maxime Lucu to scuttle away from the ruck like a crab, with the exit kick skewing sideways off his left boot. In the second instance, McCarthy splinters Cyrille Baille and Charles Ollivon at the cleanout over Gabrillagues and then pours through on to the acting scrum-half.

While McCarthy was busy clawing for inches in the middle of mayhem, Beirne stood off the tackle like a circling hawk, waiting to stoop and pounce.


When the coup de grâce arrived at the start of the fourth quarter, it came in the space where France like to put strength on strength, priding themselves in mano-a-mano combat.


The rough and tumble at the maul goes the way of Beirne and McCarthy too. Four French forwards, including Gabrillagues and Willemse’s replacement, 145kg Posolo Tuilagi, remove themselves from the play to take Beirne off the infield corner of the drive, and McCarthy gleefully turns his nose upfield, unopposed, to lead Dan Sheehan over for the try.

France came a distant second in the second row selection battle when they lost man mountain Emmanuel Meafou to injury before the game, and forgot to pick their best athlete, Cameron Woki, alongside him. Ireland had no such issues, and the men in green look to have found the perfect balance.

The Munsterman calls and catches while the Leinsterman lifts at lineout time. McCarthy carries short and boulders upfield while Beirne carries long and picks his lines in combination with the backs. McCarthy destroys rucks in defence, Beirne pounces on the shrapnel to win turnovers. They look like an old married couple, right from the first date.

As Beirne commented, “He certainly was ‘Big Joe’ out there.

“He was physical, he did exactly what everyone was hoping that he would do, and everything that we expected him to do.

“He does it in training, he’s so athletic, and credit to him. What a first start in the Six Nations. There is a lot more to come from him for sure.”

In boxing parlance, McCarthy has ‘heavy hands’. Even when he doesn’t hit you with the perfect knockout blow, you still feel the power as it shudders through your body. It is a quality both Leinster and Ireland have been missing, and the coming-together of McCarthy and Crowley in a record win on French soil suggests Farrell may have found another way to improve Ireland, even after the loss of ‘irreplaceable’ Johnny Sexton. Now that really would be something.


Carlin 129 days ago

Thanks for a top article Nick. Hope the start of 2024 has gone well so far.

McCarthy was really impressive with his physicality on the weekend. It was great to see a big young tigh forward display such a good workrate and was very effective in the physical exchanges.

Thanks for highlighting Beirne. I thought he was exceptional vs France. His ability to disrupt the French lineout was a key for their victory and I really enjoyed how well he took his try.

john 129 days ago

Imagine how good the Irish could be if they had an Irish coach they could believe in.

I can’t wait to see this guy get stuck in to the All Blacks.

Otagoman II 129 days ago

Good size and power from the young lock. He did impress me and I did notice him when he played against the Maori back in 2022. Ireland have 4 quality internal locks which contrasts to what NZ has now. In regards to the French, I’ve seen them give rubbish ball to Du Pont before but the physical strength of him has saved them. I would imagine also that Shaun Edwards will be a little worried by the tries conceded.

Rugby 129 days ago

Outstanding article, once again.

Hah, Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin, his mother was from Tipperary and father also had Irish roots. Nice link. Big Joe was abrasive but he did not fully live up to McCarthyism and the persecution of left-wing. He stayed in the ruck.

I did wonder if Paul Willemse aggression (poorly executed -twice) was in response to big Joe and others? Ireland had that plan when they picked Big Joe, the French should have seen it coming when he was named in the starting 15.

Your third clip shows it perfectly. The Irish we using their forwards to run back into where the ruck was, but further up field, rather than spreading it wide, they pulled the French back in and would run at flat footed French. Antoine Dupont was missed he is like an extra loose forward and a good tackler. By going back in it allowed the Irish to set up their phase play in the backs, sometimes the forwards broke through to score - which was a good reward but I think it was just meant to create space and position for the backs. As it turned out the French lost Willemse so it became easier. By the time O’Mahony was off game was under control.

Maybe France could have brought their subs on 10 mins earlier? and Charles Ollivon should have moved to no 2 in lineout.

French Lineout and decisions around the breakdown and half back were the problems for the French team, Both can be fixed.

Mzilikazi 130 days ago

Thanks, Nick. I still can’t really believe what I saw last Friday night. It was wonderous to behold an Irish team coming home with a wet sail. I really have not seen a better or more comprehensive performance by an Irish team against France.

Nor have ever seen both Irish locks play such a dominant game. The MOM decision could so easily have gone to Tadgh Beirne. He is a big game player. And I remember your mentioning how good he was with Scarlets, before we ever saw him play in Ireland. Leinster certainly made a rare mistake letting him go post academy days in Dublin.

And James Ryan now finds himself bench player. And there was talk of him as captain only weeks ago.

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