Joey Carbery has had more than his fair share of injury setbacks in his career but his omission from Ireland’s 37-man Six Nations squad will hurt him in an altogether different but equally wounding manner.
Never has he been left out of an Irish squad when fit since making his composed debut in the historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago in November 2016, and at 27 it is not unreasonable to suggest that the 37-times capped Munster outhalf is suddenly facing something of a crossroads.
Injuries, notably the ankle problem which restricted Carbery at the 2019 World Cup and subsequently required an operation, were compounded by wrist and elbow injuries while playing for Munster, ultimately sidelining him from Test rugby for 20 months until July 2021.
When producing a man-of-the-match performance against Argentina in November 2021 after seamlessly switching to fullback for the last half-hour, he appeared to be back to his best.
But he was forced off in the 45th minute of the win over Fiji last November with a head injury courtesy of Albert Tuisue’s high hit, which despite Vern Cotter’s bizarre protestations rightly earned the flanker a red card, so also ruling Carbery out of the concluding game against Australia.
Tellingly, Andy Farrell didn’t attempt to conceal his displeasure with the performance against Fiji. “I thought we was off, I thought we was poor. We didn’t have much continuity. I think the way we started the game was slow,” ventured the Irish coach.
When Johnny Sexton pulled out of the Australia game about 45 minutes before kick-off, Jack Crowley made his full Test debut, with Ross Byrne bridging an 18-month hiatus since his previous cap by nailing the match-winning clutch penalty.
In light of Crowley’s confident performances with Munster since, even if mostly in tandem with Carbery at 12, and Byrne’s continuing assuredness with Leinster – he has played in all but one of their 15 wins this season, starting 11 of them – this duo have now usurped Carbery.
The latter will now have to pick up the pieces with Munster, and it will be interesting to see if pressure is brought to bear on the province to pick Crowley at outhalf when their team is unveiled at noon on Friday for Sunday’s crunch Pool B finale in Toulouse.
Although he was replaced before the hour mark last Saturday against Northampton, a hunch would be that Munster would prefer to retain Carbery in tandem with Crowley at 12 rather than further damage his confidence.
Munster are also going to have to place their faith in Carbery in something of a make-or-break period for their URC top eight qualification hopes, and in that sense his omission by the Irish management is something of a blessing in disguise for them given Ben Healy has also been called into the Scottish squad.
The province have a difficult assignment away to Benetton on Saturday week in Treviso, where the Italians have won all but one of their home matches this season, followed by games at home to the Ospreys and the Scarlets on the Six Nations down weekends and a visit form Glasgow a week after Ireland’s final game against England.
If nothing else, we know that the Irish outhalf pecking order can be very fluid, and with that ability to play fullback as well it would be premature to write Carbery off at this juncture.
[ Matt Williams: Ross Byrne can grasp opportunity to secure second place in Ireland’s outhalf pecking order ]
If that was the most surprising selection, less so was the merited inclusion of the 21-year-old Jamie Osborne, all the more so with Robbie Henshaw not being named pending his complete recovery from a minor wrist operation.
Given he played in the first and third games of the Emerging Ireland tour against the Griquas and the Cheetahs, as well as being one of the few in the Irish A performance against an All Blacks XV to emerge with credit, Osborne is perhaps strictly speaking not a bolter.
But after the Irish management cast their net wide in 2022, when using 45 players in 11 Tests and bringing 84 players into various international camps, the talented Osborne is the only uncapped player in the squad – signalling that the countdown to the World Cup has also moved up a gear.
While Ireland completed a clean sweep in November, in the absence of James Lowe there was a relative shortfall in X-factor. Now, in addition to Lowe, Jordan Larmour, and a tad more surprisingly Jacob Stockdale, are both back in the fold among the seven outside backs named.
Larmour missed the November window through injury but has impressed upon his return with his improved carrying beyond contact and greater involvements, while also scoring four tries in five games for Leinster.
True, Larmour is often on the end of some slickly conceived and executed strike plays in European rugby’s most prolific side, whereas Stockdale hasn’t scored in nine outings for Ulster this season and last played for Ireland against Japan in July 2021. Perhaps bringing Stockdale into the squad is designed to give him a lift as well as being recognition of his latent match-winning abilities.
As can be seen in the selections of, say, Larmour, Osborne, Byrne, Joe McCarthy and Ryan Baird, as expected a rising tide lifts all boats and so 20 of the 37-man squad are Leinster players.
By contrast, after a run of six defeats in their last seven games – however thin the margins and their ill-luck – save for Stockdale several Ulster regulars in latter times have missed out, notably Michael Lowry, James Hume, Kieran Treadwell and Nick Timoney.
Otherwise, it’s a testament to Ireland’s relative rude health that with the return of Rónan Kelleher and David Kilcoyne, these are the same 20 forwards named at the outset of the 2022 Six Nations, save for McCarthy and Cian Prendergast in place of Treadwell and Timoney.
The outhalf pecking order apart, that is remarkable continuity.
Ireland squad for the Six Nations
Outside backs: Keith Earls (Munster, 98 caps), Mack Hansen (Connacht, 8) Hugo Keenan (Leinster, 25), Jordan Larmour (Leinster, 30), James Lowe (Leinster, 15), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster, 3), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster, 35).
Centres: Bundee Aki (Connacht, 41), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster, 9), Jamie Osborne (Leinster, uncapped), Garry Ringrose (Leinster, 47).
Outhalves: Ross Byrne (Leinster, 14), Jack Crowley (Munster, 2), Johnny Sexton (Leinster, 109) (Capt).
Scrumhalves: Craig Casey (Munster, 7, Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster, 23), Conor Murray (Munster, 100).
Hookers: Rob Herring (Ulster, 31), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster, 18), Dan Sheehan (Leinster, 13).
Props: Finlay Bealham (Connacht, 27), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, 63), Cian Healy (Leinster, 121), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster, 48), Tom O’Toole (Ulster, 4), Andrew Porter (Leinster, 48).
Locks: Ryan Baird (Leinster, 8), Tadhg Beirne (Munster, 36), Iain Henderson (Ulster, 68), Joe McCarthy (Leinster, 1), James Ryan (Leinster, 48).
Backrows: Jack Conan (Leinster, 33), Gavin Coombes (Munster, 2), Caelan Doris (Leinster, 23), Peter O’Mahony (Munster, 89), Cian Prendergast (Connacht, 1), Josh van der Flier (Leinster, 45).