Sean Farrell reports from Exeter
IN SO MANY ways, Saturday was a day of old Munster, though coloured by the frightening physicality of modern rugby and with sparkling hints of what is yet to come from the province.
Sandy Park is a place where a big, deep dig is required at the best of times, let alone a windswept afternoon locked in the sights of the Premiership leaders.
In Joey Carbery, there was unmistakable brilliance attempting to wriggle free of an incredibly punishing clash of two teams who pride themselves on their ability to force the issue.
This was far from the ideal day for Carbery to showcase his wide array talents, but he found a forum nonetheless. That ultra smooth sunning style seemingly allowed him click into a high gear and burst to make openings and potential overlaps when CJ Stander breached the sky blue line and when Tadhg Beirne forced a turnover. He sent zip-line passes flying to hit targets left and right. Lesser opponents would have unveiled a gap.
In extremely difficult conditions, his distribution was a cut above and he can take enormous game management experience from the encounter. Not least from the late kick that was caught and carried all the way from the Munster 22 over the Chiefs’ dead ball line with time almost up on the 10-10 outcome.
“He said his heart fell right down to his stomach with that last play,” said head coach Johann van Graan of the wind-assisted knife edge Munster found themselves on.
Instead of breaking Carbery’s heart, the moment is a mere footnote, one soon forgotten outside of Exeter’s list of ‘what ifs’ thanks to Munster’s resolve to keep the hard-hitting unbeaten Premiership leaders out for 22 long phases.
“For a 22-year-old fly-half, he was brilliant. He gave a great 80 minute performance,” added Van Graan, delighted to see his brightest recruit clock up a fourth straight start in the number 10 shirt.
“He played very well tonight. I think he managed the game brilliantly. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t down there on the pitch would realise just how hard it was to manage a game in those conditions.
“Our half-back pairing did really well. I think we should also give a special mention to Mike Haley. He hasn’t played that much in a few weeks and to put in a fullback performance like that, in this wind, is very good.
“We had a chat before the game and he said it was incredible the amount of games he is getting as a 10 now. He gave a great 80 minute performance.”
Van Graan of course, was reared on rugby, deeply entrenched in the South African system at all levels. So he was asked how Carbery stacks up against the ‘Bok playmakers he has come across.
Carbery making one of his 11 completed tackles. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
“He is up there with some of the very best 10s I worked with in South Africa; Eric Hougaard, when he was 18. Morne Steyn, Johann Goosen… Joey is going to be a massive player for us in the future.
“To emphasise, it is not about Joey Carbery for him. It is all about the team and our performance today. We are glad to have him.”
That point was borne out by Carbery’s performance too. He didn’t present himself as a martyr as can sometimes happen running out-halves who have made their reputation by scything through defences. When pressure comes on fast, it’s easy to fall into tunnel vision and attempt a low-percentage cut. Carbery remained focused on the over-arching plan, backed his team to do the heavy lifting and was ready when the openings came along.
“You see what you get,” says his captain Peter O’Mahony.