Ireland fly-half Joey Carbery has been challenged to scale new heights in his quest to permanently dislodge influential captain Johnny Sexton.
Carbery is poised to start consecutive Test matches for only the second time after retaining the number 10 jersey ahead of the fit-again Sexton for Sunday’s Guinness Six Nations meeting with Italy in Dublin.
The 26-year-old – whose career has been hampered by injury in recent years – will win his 30th international cap this weekend but almost two-thirds of those appearances have come from the bench.
Following a solid showing in the 30-24 defeat to France a fortnight ago, Ireland assistant coach Mike Catt has urged Munster player Carbery to strive for more as he seeks to fully emerge from Sexton’s shadow.
“Joey is slowly growing into himself again,” said Catt. “He had a very good performance against France, this is the next step up for him now.
“He’s got his feet under the table, under the desk, and he needs to make sure he drives to that next level.
“For us, it’s about making the right decisions at the right time – that’s always been the case for our 10s – and then bringing his X-factor.
“He’s got a very good running game which we haven’t seen too often – well, he’s been injured a lot of the time, I suppose.
“But he’s very good at attacking a line, so areas like that (are where he can offer more), but only if it’s the right thing to do and making sure that he controls the area so we’re not playing too much rugby in key areas too.”
Carbery’s only previous back-to-back starts for Ireland came last summer when 2018 world player of the year Sexton – who will be among the replacements against the Azzurri – was rested.
Andy Farrell’s selection shows six changes from the team which began in Paris, including a debut for Ulster full-back Michael Lowry and a maiden start for hooker Dan Sheehan, in place of his injured Leinster team-mate Ronan Kelleher.
With Sexton only a substitute and vice-captain James Ryan joining Kelleher in the treatment room, experienced flanker Peter O’Mahony will skipper the side at the Aviva Stadium on his first Six Nations start since being sent off against Wales in round one of the 2021 tournament.
Catt believes landmark occasions for Lowry and Sheehan will help ensure the team do not underestimate inferior opposition who have lost 34 championship matches on the bounce.
“I think that’s driven internally with the players,” replied Catt when asked how to prevent players misjudging the difficulty of facing Italy.
“Pete as captain tomorrow has really driven that. You’re playing for your country, it’s exactly what you want to do.
“Mikey’s getting his first cap, Dan Sheehan’s getting his first start, these little milestones are massive for individuals and it’s about inspiring our nation and making sure we get our nation behind us.
“We don’t underestimate any of the opponents that are coming to the Aviva.
“We know it’s a proper Test match tomorrow, we know what Italy can bring, how disruptive they can be, their kicking game is very good.
“I think the way Kieran Crowley (Italy head coach) wants the game to be played is definitely shining through but, again, it takes time and experience for that to happen.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.