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26th May 2018

IRFU’s latest move a strong indication that Carbery or Byrne could be at Ulster next season

Jack O'Toole

‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush‘.

IRFU High Performance Director David Nucifora doesn’t appear to be a big subscriber to the theory after the IRFU reportedly blocked Lions and South Africa fly-half Elton Jantjies from a potential move to Ulster next season.

According to the BBC, Ulster’s hopes of signing Jantjies have been dashed by the IRFU because he is not an Irish qualified player, which reinforces the idea that Ulster will either stick with Johnny McPhillips, look to bring in an Irish qualified fly-half or look to bring in Joey Carbery or Ross Byrne from Leinster next season.

The Carbery-Byrne dilemma has been one of the dominant narratives in Irish Rugby this season but the IRFU’s decision to turn away Super Rugby’s leading points scorer last season is a huge sign that the union are willing to back their own, that is of course if they can actually get their own to play in Belfast next season.

Jantjies led the Lions to two Super Rugby finals in consecutive years and it’s hard to imagine Ulster realistically acquiring a more talented player than him at fly-half.

Christian Leali’ifano was a huge success at the province earlier this season before he returned to the Brumbies so it’s difficult to see the IRFU blocking a move for Jantjies unless they were seriously confident that they could; a) convince Byrne or Carbery to join from Leinster; or b) that Johnny McPhillips is a long term option at fly-half for the province.

Carbery has been increasingly linked with a move to Munster next season but surely if the IRFU are going to block a move for Jantjies it gives more credence to the idea that he’s headed for a move up the M1 and not down the M7.

Carbery has reportedly been given a choice by the IRFU between Munster and Ulster next season.

It is understood that he will ultimately be allowed to make the decision on where his playing future lies, but if he does favour a move to Munster over Ulster, it’s a serious sign of faith from the IRFU in Johnny McPhillips or a sign of incompetence from the union in that they made a gamble in a Leinster fly-half moving to Ulster only for that player to then head south while there’s still a 21-year-old fly-half in the north.

If Carbery or Byrne move to Ulster next season then the spurning of Jantjies could be justified but if either player moves south you’re turning away a world-class fly-half to back a 21-year-old.

McPhillips has steadily improved this season following the departure of Leali’ifano but it’s still too early to tell what kind of ceiling he has as a player and if he’ll ever turn into a legitimate international prospect for Ireland.

More games next season will provide a better indication if McPhillips will ever get to that international bridge one day, and if he does it’ll be a win for Irish Rugby, but if he doesn’t and he follows a similar path to Jack Carty at Connacht then the dismissal of Jantjies could be a massive regret for the IRFU.

Byrne’s selection on this summer’s Ireland tour of Australia shows that head coach Joe Schmidt is willing to give him a legitimate shot at overtaking Carbery in the fly-half pecking order.

Maybe he doesn’t get that chance. Maybe he will simply be the third choice fly-half and Carbery will back up Johnny Sexton in all three tests.

But maybe Schmidt gives him a run and maybe that puts more pressure on Carbery to move if there’s a chance – or at least if he thinks there’s a chance – that he could get squeezed out of the national picture with Ireland.

It’s unlikely given the faith that Schmidt showed in Carbery in the Six Nations despite his clear lack of gametime at fly-half for Leinster.

Schmidt clearly rates Carbery but he also wants him to receive more gametime ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup to avoid a repeat of the Ian Madigan situation at the 2015 Rugby World Cup where the former Leinster utility was thrust into a World Cup quarter-final after spending an entire season bouncing around multiple positions at Leinster.

No one wants that.

Joey Carbery is Ireland’s long-term option at fly-half but if he experiences another season like this campaign with Leinster, where he started just one game all season at fly-half compared to Byrne who started 19 games at fly-half for the province, that could outlook could change, at least for next year’s World Cup.

If that ratio balloons to 38 games for Byrne at fly-half next season compared to a handful over two seasons for Carbery; Schmidt will really need a lot of faith to stick with the latter.

Carbery is in an unenviable position. He’s content to sit and learn behind Johnny Sexton at Leinster but his national team coach and his high performance director want to see him move elsewhere to get more gametime at a position they see his long term future in.

If he moves to Ulster or Munster next season, on a long or short term deal, he’ll be given the flexibility and reign to run his own team but he’ll also be acutely aware that it took Sexton until the age of 24 to replace Felipe Contepomi at Leinster and that the attritional nature of modern rugby can be unkind to international fly-halves.

Carbery experienced the harshness of international rugby last year when he broke his arm against Fiji and one only needs to look at the last nine years of Sexton’s career to see just how brutal the physical toll can be on a player in his position.

What I’m trying to say is I can see why Carbery is taking his time. He’s a long career ahead of him and there’ll be many more hits to come.

Blocking the Elton Jantjies move to Ulster gives more credence to the idea that Carbery could be headed to Belfast, even though he’s dismissed links to the northern province for months now.

He’s been reluctant to move up the M1 all year and Ulster have indicated that they’re only really interested in having him if he shows a genuine interest in playing there.

Maybe recent events and the confirmation of Champions Cup rugby next season forces him to reconsider joining Ulster.

The IRFU better hope so because they’ve turned down a magnificent bird in Jantjies for a shot at two young birds in Belfield, both of which have been reluctant to spread their wings.

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