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27th Apr 2018

Leo Cullen will not allow outside voices to influence Joey Carbery selection

Jack O'Toole

It’s the most interesting story in Irish Rugby that actually pertains to rugby.

In a week where Ulster Rugby locked horns with news journalists over accreditation to their press conferences, the Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne dilemma at Leinster has bubbled below the surface and reached some sort of a crescendo on Friday when Leinster head coach Leo Cullen selected Byrne over Carbery at fly-half for this weekend’s trip to Connacht.

Carbery will still start at full-back in the match but the conundrum for Leinster and Ireland is this – Joey Carbery is Ireland’s second-choice fly-half but Leo Cullen seemingly prefers Ross Byrne at the position instead, creating a situation where the nation’s second-choice fly-half is viewed as the third choice option at his own club.

Cullen’s selection also comes just over a week after Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora reportedly met with Leinster to discuss the possibility of moving one of Byrne or Carbery to Ulster to replace Paddy Jackson next season.

Leinster were said to be furious with the timing of the meeting given that it was said to have occurred before their Champions Cup semi-final win over the Scarlets last weekend.

The province responded on Friday by selecting Carbery at full-back, the second time he will start there since the end of the Six Nations, even though Schmidt has made it known this season that he would like to see the player receive more gametime at fly-half.

“Look, it is what it is, it’s an unfortunate situation for us, but I totally understand, they’ve got Johnny Sexton at Leinster, he plays and Rob Kearney was injured so Joey takes the opportunity at fullback,” Schmidt said of the Carbery situation during last year’s November internationals.

“I just appreciate that he gets game time and is in good condition to play.

“I’d love him to play 10 more often, it would help his development, but it’s a needs-must situation.

“He’s such a team orientated character he would play anywhere and I totally understand that.”

He’ll have to be willing to play anywhere if he’s to see any meaningful gametime for Leinster to finish this season but the Carbery-Byrne dynamic clearly extends beyond a positional battle between the two players.

If Cullen wanted to stick it to Schmidt and Nucifora he could have placed Byrne on the bench over Carbery for the Scarlets game, but he didn’t, he stuck with Carbery as his backup.

He’s just seemingly less convinced of his ability to start from fly-half than Schmidt.

Cullen is his own coach and determined that the player is more suited to playing full-back against Connacht and there’s not much that Schmidt, the IRFU or anyone else can really do about it.

Leo Cullen will be judged on his ability to win games for Leinster and he’ll make the decisions he thinks will give him the best chance of achieving victory, whether those decisions suit Joe Schmidt or not.

Leinster are the best team in Europe this season and are favoured to claim a fourth European Cup next month, which, would draw the club level with Toulouse on four European Cup wins if they were to defeat Racing in Bilbao next month.

It’s unlikely that Carbery will play a significant role in the Champions Cup final unless there’s an injury to Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw or Rob Kearney.

The 22-year-old has played just 11 games for Leinster this season with seven starts at full-back, three appearances off the bench (including 18 minutes against the Scarlets while Leinster were 29 points clear) and one start at fly-half, where Leinster lost to Treviso for just the second time in the club’s history.

He might only have the lone start for Leinster there this season but Schmidt sees Carbery as a fly-half.

Former New Zealand Rugby World Cup coach Graham Henry once said that Carbery should be Leinster’s fly-half for the next decade.

Carbery himself has said that he sees himself playing there in the long term and yet Cullen has reverted back to Byrne for the position after previously naming Carbery on the bench – ahead of Byrne – for both of the Champions Cup knockout stage games against Saracens and the Scarlets.

Cullen and his coaching staff seemingly won’t be told what to do, or who to play where, while Schmidt and Nucifora are potentially staring another Ian Madigan situation in the face, whereby the former Leinster utility had played just four of 22 matches at fly-half for Leinster during the season before the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

When first-choice fly-half Johnny Sexton withdrew from Ireland’s final pool game against France with a groin complaint, Madigan was thrust into first receiver with only 320 minutes of gametime at the position for his club.

He performed well off the bench to steer Ireland to victory against France but he could not replicate his performance in the quarter-final against Argentina, where he was far from the only Irish player that was found guilty of failing to meet expectations.

Schmidt won’t want to see a similar situation repeat itself at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan next year, but if Carbery won’t leave Leinster, and he’s given every indication that he has no intention of travelling north next season, and if Cullen is reluctant to start him at fly-half, what else can Schmidt do?

If Johnny Sexton can stay injury free maybe it won’t be an issue but Schmidt has been coaching long enough to know that you have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

An end of season game in Galway won’t do too much to solve the Carbery-Byrne dilemma but it is a strong indication from Leinster that they will not be advised where to play their players by Nucifora, Schmidt or anyone else.

The province are circling for a potential PRO14 and Champions Cup double and the Carbery-Byrne scenario is a mere footnote in what could be a historic end to their season, but in the grander scheme of their relationship with the national side, this is a loud statement that pierces through a difficult week of noise.

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