Analysis: How did Joey Carbery play after replacing Johnny Sexton?

LOSING JOHNNY SEXTON to injury is never a good thing for Ireland, but his failed HIA in Edinburgh on Saturday did at least mean Joey Carbery got 57 minutes of exposure at out-half in a big Six Nations game.

It is, by some distance, the longest stint the 18-times Carbery has had on the pitch in a Six Nations fixture and Joe Schmidt will hope the experience will prove valuable for the 23-year-old.

Carbery hugs Munster coach Johann van Graan after the game at Murrayfield. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Finn Russell intercepted a Carbery pass to tee up Scotland’s only try of the game, but Carbery did later assist Keith Earls for Ireland’s third five-pointer in Murrayfield.

“Anytime we get that opportunity for time for guys like Joey, he’s got to profit from it,” said Schmidt afterwards.

“You know, he is growing into a player who can boss the team. “His confidence is such that, I think it took a little bit of a rock today, a knockback when he threw the intercept pass because, inevitably, suddenly from 12-3 and a bit of breathing space and looking to play, it becomes 12-10 and not a lot of space or time to play in.”

Rather oddly, Carbery kicked the ball in play only twice after coming on and both of those kicks were essentially meaningless.

The first was to nudge the ball out of play for half-time and the second was a grubber kick after Ireland had already earned penalty advantage. 

Ireland’s strange lack of willingness to use Carbery as a kicking option heaped pressure on Conor Murray, who kicked 13 times in play.

We will discuss Ireland’s poor kicking in more depth elsewhere but in this article, we focus on Carbery’s contributions to Ireland’s play with ball in hand.

Power play

Carbery’s first act is involvement in an Irish power play off a left-hand-side scrum in their own half.

His first pass is off his left hand, needling between Jacob Stockdale and Bundee Aki to Chris Farrell…

It’s not the greatest pass from Carbery, slightly too low and forcing Farrell to stoop, but the outside centre carries strongly for Ireland.

With Jack Conan stepping in at scrum-half on his pre-designed play, we can see below that Murray is now at first receiver and Carbery [circled] is in behind a two-man pod of forwards to accept the pullback pass.

Carbery hits Rory Best and loops around the hooker fluidly to accept the return pass, before straightening back up well to fix Stuart McInally in the defensive line.

Unfortunately for Ireland, we can see above that Peter O’Mahony [6] has slightly overrun his line on the outside of Carbery and though they make big yards after the out-half hits Bundee Aki to pass, in turn, to Cian Healy, there is no linebreak.

Carbery has one more pass in the phase play that ensues but Ireland are then forced to kick the ball through Murray as they lose attacking momentum.


Soon after, Ireland attack off another scrum and we see one of Carbery’s great strengths – his ability to slip out of structure based on what he sees.

The impressive Conan makes a superb carry off the base and James Ryan follows up to create a midfield ruck.

Murray has already passed right to Carbery here [as indicated in white] but we can see the frustration from Aki [yellow], who has also called for the ball.

Aki believes that a bounce-back to that side in a ’21′ pattern [two phases infield before coming back against the grain] is ideal here and this image supports his case, with Scotland having folded heavily around the corner onto Carbery’s side.

Carbery reads the situation perfectly and makes a good decision to shift back to the left and avoid the onrushing defence.

He slips behind the ruck and calmly draws in McInally before releasing the pass to Aki…

Aki is able to use the numbers outside him, Sean O’Brien bursting into the Scotland half, before O’Mahony grubbers down the left touchline, hoping to keep the ball infield but earning good territory for Ireland as it rolls into touch instead.

This is clear-headed decision-making from Carbery and he appears to have settled into the game.


But, just under five minutes after coming on, Carbery is picked off for that intercept.

The issue begins with Murray having to gather in the scraps of an aerial contest…

… and carry the ball into contact himself near the left touchline.

With Murray on the ground, O’Mahony steps in to act as the scrum-half on the next phase, passing infield to O’Brien in the middle of a three-man pod.

We can see above that Carbery [yellow above] is hovering in behind to offer a back-door option, before moving to organise the next phase as O’Brien carries…

Even as O’Brien is carrying, we can see above that Carbery has players in position outside him, with Healy [blue] and Best [white] ready to offer themselves as ball-carriers off 10, and Aki [red] hovering as the back-door option.

In other words, Carbery is ready to play almost immediately.

But, with Murray still getting off the ground, there is no scrum-half.

O’Mahony, even with the ruck won, opts to engage onto the back of it.

Now, we don’t know if Carbery is demanding the ball here – he should be – but it’s not beyond O’Mahony’s skill level to make a six-metre pass to ensure Ireland are playing with quick ball.

Ryan is next on the scene for Ireland and we can see below that he moves to lift the ball and pass [white]…

… but Murray is now on the move towards the ruck [green] and Ryan steps away from the ball as he moves it into a better position for his scrum-half.

Essentially, what might have been a sub-three-second ruck [i.e. lightning quick ball] has become a seven-second ruck [i.e. slow ball].

All the while, Scotland have been setting their defence and reading the Ireland shape in front of them.

“We try to bring a lot of linespeed to our defence,” explains Russell. We can see below how well set the Scottish defensive line is after Ireland’s delay at the ruck.

That good defensive shape allows Scotland to burst out of the blocks when Murray lifts the ball to pass, with Russell [red below] leading the charge with McInally just inside him.

Carbery compounds the slow possession with a poor decision on the ball, attempting to skip a pass in front of Healy to Best…

… but this is an invitation to Russell, with the ball in the air for too long.

 Russell, having been in Carbery’s shoes as an out-half, has a strong understanding of what’s at play here.

“For a 10, if you’ve forwards outside you, a team is shooting up and you can see that early on, so that is a trigger for myself,” says Russell.

“Either pick him off [i.e. intercept the pass] or get him to turn back inside [i.e. force Carbery to tuck the ball and carry himself].

“Luckily enough, he threw the pass. That was one of the mistakes and he will learn from it. I think the next time he doesn’t throw that pass.”

As Russell picks off the pass, Carbery sets off in pursuit.

Keith Earls, coming from Russell’s left, shows great work-rate to track the Scotland out-half down, then intelligence on the move to bat down his fend attempt [white below] and complete the tackle.

The main support threat is Sam Johnson [red] but Carbery [yellow] is ahead of him and so can’t track his movement.

As Russell is grounded by Earls, he stays calm on the ground and gets his hands free.

Carbery tracks onto Russell’s left-hand side, looking to block that offloading lane, but Russell slightly delays as Johnson cleverly shifts to his right…

… and Russell releases the ball just before Earls can adjust his right arm up onto it to make a block. Johnson scores and Graig Laidlaw converts to bring the Scots back to within two points of the Ireland lead.

For Carbery, it’s a major setback only minutes after coming off the bench. 

“I suppose you just have to focus on the next moment – ‘What’s the next thing I can do to make a positive impact?’” says Carbery of his thought process under the posts.

“It’s obviously not great to throw the intercept, but a great chase by Earlsy in behind. We came back together as a team, we got to half-time after that huge defensive effort before half-time.”

To the half

After kicking the restart, Carbery’s next involvement is to hit a ruck, before a period of intense Scottish pressure ensues.

Carbery has another error soon after, as he fails to deal with a Scotland grubber in the Ireland 22.

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Carbery is again lacking some accuracy as he falls onto the ball, which ricochets off his left leg and puts Earls under pressure close to the touchline, the left wing opting for the safety of carrying the ball into touch.

“He was a bit ruffled, especially after that intercept,” says Schmidt of Carbery. “You know what? That is good growth.

“That is a good opportunity to say, ‘I am under pressure here now, the team is under pressure, I’ve got to stay in the game and I’ve still got to make good decisions and I’ve still to boss the team well’.”

The error means a five-metre lineout and despite a Ryan steal initially, Scotland get another shot at the tryline from the five-metre scrum.

“There was a big defensive set there just before half-time and [Carbery] played his part in that really well,” says Schmidt.

Carbery is tested immediately from the scrum as Scotland send wing Tommy Seymour into his channel.

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He chops in low to complete the tackle with Murray coming from the inside, before bouncing back to his feet and into the defensive line.

Carbery isn’t directly involved in a tackle again, but he does bring good linespeed and work-rate off the ball as Ireland survive the 25-phase onslaught.

Still unsteady

After restarting the second half, Carbery’s next involvement comes close to producing another score for Scotland. 

He gets on the ball at first receiver [white below], with a two-man pod of Healy and Best outside him again.

Chris Farrell [blue] is in behind that pod and Carbery attempts to hit his centre, but the pass comes off Healy’s back and lands on the ground behind Farrell.

Healy and Best, in this instance, should be running harder, more convincing lines outside Carbery, therefore opening up space behind them for the out-half to pass to Farrell.

Carbery isn’t helped by the pair of forwards outside him but again his pass produces panic for Ireland as Scotland flood through.

Huw Jones, as we can see below, leads the race to the bobbling ball and if he gets a good nudge onto it with his boot, he has wing Seymour accelerating up on his right [white].

With no one in front of him, Jones swings at the ball with his right foot and, fortunately for Ireland, it scuffs off his instep and infield.

McInally is following up and has another unsuccessful swing at the ball, allowing the retreating Aki to gratefully gather it in. Ireland breath a sigh of relief. 


A couple of tackles and a good line kick help Carbery to settle himself again, before he features impressively as Ireland create a good attacking opportunity.

On phase nine of this particular attack, Ireland position Aki [yellow below] at first receiver, as we’ve seen frequently so far in this Six Nations.

Schmidt appears to be pushing Aki to take on this responsibility more, as the Ireland head coach looks to progress the tactical capabilities of his squad in this World Cup year.

Carbery [white above] is positioned as the second receiver in behind a two-man pod of forwards made up of Ryan and Quinn Roux.

As was regularly the case against England, Aki runs a dummy switch with Ryan and screens a pass behind Roux to Carbery. 

We then see the value of having Ireland’s primary playmaker [Carbery or Sexton] positioned slightly wider, as Carbery produces a beautiful pass off his right hand.

Seymour is holding tight on the edge of the Scotland defence as Farrell runs an excellent line outside Carbery, opening up space for a skip pass to Rob Kearney.

The fullback thunders into space but – as we will discuss elsewhere this week – Ireland don’t convert the opportunity and referee Romain Poite comes back for a penalty advantage.

Ireland kick into the Scotland 22 but come up empty-handed as a Murray pass goes to ground on phase 12 of the ensuing attacking passage, with Earls turned over.

The pass from Murray is obviously poor but this situation reeks of bad organisation and miscommunication from Ireland.

O’Brien and Roux [blue] are positioned close to the ruck, while Conan [red] has advanced up flat.

Murray fires a tunnel pass between them but neither Carbery [white] or Aki [yellow] is in position expecting that pass.

Without having been on the pitch, it’s impossible to know where the breakdown was in this instance but Ireland’s halfbacks – Murray and especially Carbery – must be in control of these situations and they fail their team on this occasion.

Take it to the line

Ireland’s attack continues to show promise, with Carbery running at the Scots from a midfield scrum to threaten before releasing Kearney for another break.

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It’s good playmaking from Carbery but there is better to come soon after.

Kearney breaks up the left again in the 55th minute before Healy passes infield to O’Brien.

It’s a poor pass over O’Brien’s head and he, in turn, fires an inaccurate pass towards Farrell that flies over the centre’s head.

Carbery, once again sitting wider in the Ireland attack, has to turn to retrieve the ball and we once again see his comfort when the structure breaks down.

The bouncing ball makes Scotland hesitate slightly and Carbery reels it in before accelerating rapidly in between Allan Dell and Rob Harley.

As we can see above, Harley and Dell’s heads collide in behind the tackle, causing them both to release Carbery as he powers forward.

“Joey played a bit deeper to have more of a running game himself, and it was a bit of bad luck for us to have two guys colliding in the tackle,” says Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend, “but the strength of his running game to make that break turned out to be a massive part of the game.”

“They kind of crashed into each other on the back side of me so it was great to get the break,” says Carbery himself. “There was a gap in between them, I just put my head down and went through.”

As Carbery breaks, we can see below that try-scorer Earls [red] has plenty of ground to make up.

Carbery does have Roux and Kearney [blue below] out to his left but he has already accelerated beyond them by the time he realises.

With Blair Kinghorn closing from his left, Carbery opts to arc to his right.

That draws Scotland left wing Sean Maitland [yellow below] in towards him.

And now Carbery finally gets a sighting of Earls, who has his hand up signalling for the pass.

“I saw Earlsy, I had an inkling he’d be there,” explains Carbery.

It still requires a gorgeous left-handed pass on the move from Carbery to seal the deal here.

Adding to the complexity of passing while moving at pace is the fact that Carbery has to loft the ball over the head and soon-to-be-upstretched arms of Maitland…

… calibrating it to drop down into Earls’ hands to allow him to collect without breaking stride.

“The ball felt like it was in the air for an eternity,” says Carbery.

“I knew Earlsy was going to be out there so I kind of just chucked it out there and hoped that he’d get it, and he did. He’s a great man to stick with the play and follow through, so I kind of had an inkling he was going to be there.

“I didn’t really think of it at the time, but I suppose the reps and the practice that has gone in before the game and over the last few years come into play and you kind of trust that you can do it.”

Carbery adds the two points with the conversion to put Ireland out to a nine-point lead and later slots a penalty to confirm the 22-13 scoreline.

He misses a clearout on Jamie Ritchie to allow the Scotland openside win a turnover penalty at one point, but has a big aerial win against Kinghorn on another occasion.

Carbery’s own assessment of the 57-minute outing?

“I did a few good things, a few bad things and I suppose I’ll take that and move on.”

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