In the wake of Ireland’s disappointing defeat to Wales midway through the recent Six Nations championship, much was written about Ireland’s over-reliance on Johnny Sexton as the side’s sole playmaker. When Sexton was on the field, the opinion pieces went, they were too reliant upon him; when he was off it, the side looked lost for ideas.
In our own article on the issue, we called for Jared Payne’s selection at full-back on the basis that his all-round technical attributes and world-class communication would offer a dependable alternative to Sexton in attack. When he was indeed selected by Joe Schmidt for the England fixture, he was excellent, but, over the past week, another creative full-back performance has stolen the limelight.
I am talking, of course, about the latest installment of Joey Carbery’s prodigious career. Less than a year after his man-of-the-match performance for Clontarf in the 2016 All-Ireland final, Carbery returned to the Aviva Stadium and picked up the same accolade in Leinster’s stylish victory over Wasps.
He was a devilishly mischievous influence throughout the first half, playing an operative role in two tries, and once again displayed a big-game composure well beyond his years to go with the the immediately obvious talent and flair.
But more significantly than that, at least in a tactical sense, Carbery also exhibited the unique advantages that picking your second playmaker at full-back (rather than, say, at inside-centre) can yield. In this piece, I’m going to take a look at what these are, and, with a roundabout comparison to the Chiefs and All Blacks’ Damian McKenzie, ask whether a creative full-back like Carbery might be a viable, long-term option for Ireland in lightening the load on Sexton.
It makes sense to begin with Carbery’s role in his side’s superb first score. A brilliantly-engineered try, this was a prime illustration of how, if given the attacking license by his coach, a full-back is ideally placed to stand deeper than other attackers and exploit the space opened by by crash-ball runners. Let’s take a look at the killer phase of the attack, from the rear camera:
As the ball is recycled, we can see Carbery (along with Sexton) communicating to Sean O’Brien what needs to happen. Rather than sit at second-receiver and distribute closer to the line, Carbery wants to play deeper, using his forwards to create space for himself:
As indicated by the arrows, O’Brien is instructed to a run short line targeting Danny Cipriani, while Carbery loops around the back to become a second-wave attacker. If we roll the play on a few frames from the wider angle, we can see how effective O’Brien’s dummy is, as Cipriani has lined him up for the tackle:
As indicated above, this means that Elliot Daly has a defensive dilemma on his hands. His first option is to cancel his blitz and drift laterally across the pitch, trying to buy Cipriani enough time to slide onto Carbery should the pass go behind O’Brien (as indicated by the sideways arrow), thereby lessening the extent of Leinster’s overlap.
His alternative is to hedge his bets and opt for the Hollywood Hit, flying out out of the line to try and nail Carbery man-and-ball (as indicated by the forwards arrow). In the end, he does neither, and finds himself caught in no-man’s-land: too flat to drift, and too deep to blitz. I am perhaps being over-critical here, however; the reality is that Leinster’s clever attack has left his options very limited.
On first viewing, it looked like Wade had been caught out of position for this score, but this is not the case. Daly’s reluctance to drift means that he has to step in, since any failure to do so would leave Ringrose free to take a short ball from Carbery and stride through a gaping gap. We can see both Daly’s indecisiveness, and Wade’s response to it, below:
And this is where Carbery’s decision-making comes in. If Wade stays wide, the pass to Ringrose is the correct option; if he bites in (as he correctly does) then the Leinster man has to back his technique and fire a miss-pass to Isa Nacewa on the left wing. In the above shot, we can clearly see Carbery with his head up, spotting Wade’s narrowness, and his eventual pass is an absolute peach:
For me, this score shows not only Carbery’s intelligence and technique, but also to the remit he has been given by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster: the freedom to go looking for the ball wherever he spies an opportunity. I’ll discuss this in greater depth later on, but, throughout the game last Saturday, we saw Carbery pop up all over the Leinster backline; this level of unpredictability from a second playmaker instantly puts defenders at a disadvantage.
If the above example was a great indication of a how useful a creative full-back can be in open play, then Carbery’s role in Leinster’s second try was just as good an example of how potent one can be on the counter-attack. Eventually finished by Jack Conan, this score had Carbery’s hands all over it, as he involved himself twice to put his Number 8 in the clear.
As he fields a pretty poor Wasps kick, Carbery’s instinct is one again to get his head up and play what’s in front of him. In this case, he spots that Joe Launchury is the second-widest defender in the chasing Wasps line:
Lanchbury is a fine player but, as a 6′ 5″, 19st lock, he is hardly the most mobile player on the pitch. Recognising that he can comfortably beat the Wasps man for pace, Carbery runs a really intelligent line. As indicated by the arrow above, he initially heads gently infield, sucking Launchbury narrower, before darting wider with a left-footed step and sudden burst of pace. The England defender is comfortably rounded.
With Launchbury now effectively out of the picture, Carbery is able to square up Kurtley Beale, creating an overlap out of nothing:
The rest is simple, but perfectly executed. Carbery draws Beale to put Fergus McFadden away on the outside, tracks his pass to recollect the ball, and then, once Willie le Roux has committed to the tackle, sends Conan on a clear run to the line. Below, we can see all of these elements in motion:
Irish and Scottish rugby fans will surely remember Stuart Hogg’s superb score in the meeting of their sides during the 2016 Six Nations, where the Glasgow full-back targeted two front-rowers in Rory Best and Mike Ross before working open a gap between them. Here, the principle is identical: identify less agile players in the opposition chase and maneouvre them to carve open space. It is simple rugby, but requires a full-back with the ability to play off-the-cuff: a player whose creative instincts are sharp.
Before moving on, I just want to look at one more snippet of Carbery’s play which, although far less significant in outcome than the earlier two involvements, illustrates perfectly the level of freedom that he has been handed within Leinster’s gameplan.
As Leinster attack in the 43rd minute, Carbery is not originally involved, standing as the second-widest attacker in what is often a full-back’s default position:
Just eight seconds later, however, we can see that Carbery has lost interest in this position, eager to directly involve himself in his side’s attack. He tracks around as Leinster move back towards the left-hand touchline, once again offering himself as a second-wave attacker for Sexton:
Sexton ignores Carbery on this occasion, choosing instead to run a loop play off O’Brien. This is not entirely unsuccesful, but if we freeze the play at the out-half’s point of pass, we might say that he makes a rare poor decision. Had Sexton instead drawn Kearnen Myall before distributing to to Carbery, an overlap opportunity might have arisen, as the Leinster attackers outnumber Wasps’ defenders three to two:
At the very least, had Carbery received the pass, it would have forced Wade to race up, with Beale out of position covering across from full-back. As a result, even had a try-scoring opportunity not arisen, there would have been ample space for a grubber kick in behind that would have applied real pressure to Wasps’ cover defence.
Whatever the outcome was or wasn’t, however, this passage of play is a great illustration of Carbery’s license to play within Leinster’s attacking strategy. A creative influence at full-back offers a side a uniquely unpredictable dimension, and this is reflected in the fluidity of Carbery’s positioning and his apparent freedom to join in attacks where he sees fit.
To close, I just want to draw a quick comparison between Carbery and Damian McKenzie, the Chiefs and All-Blacks full-back-cum-fly-half. For me, they are very similar players: lightweight backs who play with a sprightly, mischievous creativity. It is therefore unsurprising that, in the Chiefs’ victory against the Blue Bulls (which also took place last Saturday) McKenzie’s play exhibited a number of the qualities that I also notice in Carbery’s.
In an early passage of play, McKenzie is initially hovering behind Hika Elliot, ready to offer a deeper option behind him should Aaron Cruden’s pass go short to Brodie Retallick:
However, Cruden throws a miss-pass, the ball instead going to Elliot himself. So, as soon as his hooker takes the pass, McKenzie instantly changes his angle, instead offering himself on an arcing line behind the wider player of the prop, Siegfried Fisiihoi:
Owing to McKenzie’s original position, the Bulls’ defence were expecting an out-the-back ball behind Elliot and, because of the speed of McKenzie adjustment, are caught too narrow. If we watch it in motion, it’s clear how his razor-sharp movement flummoxes the defence:
This is great improvisation from McKenzie and, had his pass gone to hand, it may well have yielded a try-scoring opportunity for his side. As with Carbery’s play for Leinster, it is the creative full-back’s ability to pop up in different backline positions that makes him so difficult to defend.
Like Carbery, though, McKenzie also exhibited his potency as a counter-attacking threat. Just as the Leinster full-back targeted Launchbury on his kick-return, McKenzie spots that lock Lood de Jager is left covering a sizeable gap in his side’s rather flimsy chase:
As soon as he notices this, as well as the fact that much of the Bulls’ chase is clustered towards the far touchline, he springs into action, running directly at the gap and creating an opportunity for his team:
We should, of course, be wary of reading too much into these examples: despite having excelled there for Blackrock in his school days, Carbery has played far less top-level rugby as a full-back than McKenzie. But the Chiefs player is now rightly regarded as a serious, long-term option in that position for both his Super Rugby franchise and the All Blacks; I only bring up the comparison, therefore, to say that Carbery seems to have the necessary attributes to become the same for Leinster and Ireland.
Both players seem to relish the creative freedom afforded to them by their coaches, and, on last weekend’s evidence, wield it decisively. But, broadening the focus from Carbery and McKenzie to the wider debate surrounding second playmakers, it is worth noting that this this positional flexibility can normally be fully accessed only by full-backs. As a constant presence within his side’s front-line attack, an inside-centre in the “second-five-eighth” mould is more easily marked, his role more clearly demarcated.
By contrast, a 15 with genuine rugby nous, if afforded such freedom by his coach, can roam around looking for the ball where he sees fit. In the case of Ireland, a playmaking full-back might be even more threatening, since the first-rate carrying of a player like Robbie Henshaw is bound to open up spaces to exploit in behind (just as O’Brien did in my first example).
So, while I am sceptical of those calling for Carbery’s Lions selection based on a single superb showing, I think it does merit his being taking seriously as a long-term full-back option for club and country. In their much-publicised hunt for that second playmaker, and with Henshaw and Ringrose seeming to have the centre positions locked down in both blue and green, I think Leinster and Ireland could do far worse than hand Carbery that 15 jersey on a more regular basis.