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'When I was younger I would have taken it quite personally, but now it drives you on'

Jack Carty welcomes the added competition in the out-half department at Connacht, as he strives to take his game to another level.

IT’S OVER THREE years now since Jack Carty was put through the mill, both mentally and physically, as he lay in a Dubai hospital requiring surgery to remove the spleen he had ruptured in a freak water slide accident.  

Jack Carty Carty in action against Bristol last week. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Not only did he miss the landmark days in Connacht’s Pro12 title victory under Pat Lam, but the seriousness of his condition meant he lost 13kg in the space of four days in hospital and had to essentially rebuild his strength and fitness levels from scratch.

It was a particularly difficult, and scary, period for the Athlone native, who has previously said rugby was the furthest thing from his mind during those dark days as doctors deliberated over the best course of action.

But Carty, for whom the right attitude of hard work and drive has never been a problem, put the head down over the following pre-season to not only revive and rebuild himself as a player, but use the time to make improvements in aspects of his game which required attention, such as tackling and goal-kicking.

Going from Connacht’s first-choice 10 to being reduced to the role of 24th man for the Pro12 final was difficult to comprehend, particularly when he had played such a starring role up until the mid-season trip to Dubai, but the experience has put things in perspective.

His approach towards rugby, and everyday life, is admirable and it’s that hard-working mindset which has seen Carty graduate through the province’s ranks into a key, and very popular, figure within the dressing room.

It’s easy to forget he is just 25, too.

Last season’s Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to Gloucester marked Carty’s 100th appearance in a Connacht jersey, and he is now entering his fourth full season in the senior squad having coincidentally made his debut against Glasgow Warriors — Saturday’s opposition — back in September 2012.

After a strong pre-season, Carty goes into the campaign-opener against the Warriors still in possession of the number 10 jersey, but knows he faces a new challenge following the signing of Australian David Horwitz.

That said, Carty has been no stranger to competition in the out-half department, with the presence of Dan Parks initially limiting his opportunities at the Sportsground and the subsequent the arrivals of Craig Ronaldson, AJ MacGinty and Springbok Marnitz Boshoff all adding to the half-back options in recent years.

It’s something Carty has had to embrace, whether he likes it or not.

“When I was younger it was a thing I would have taken quite personally,” he says.

“But it’s something in any facet of life, if there’s not someone there adding a bit of competition it’s probably going to make you quite comfortable in the place you are.

“It is a cliché but to have a bit of competition, either that you’re chasing someone in front of you or you’ve competition behind you, it’s quite important to grow as a person and get better as a player.”

Funnily, Carty has been hosting Horwitz at his Galway home in recent weeks while the 23-year-old waits to move into his own accommodation, meaning he has been able to keep a close eye on the competition.

“It’s much easier when you get on with the fellas,” he continues. “I get on really well with Craig [Ronaldson] and with Dave so when those scenarios come around when you don’t get picked or you get dropped, it makes a bit easier that you actually get on with the lads because it can be a difficult thing.

ack Carty The out-half speaking at yesterday's TG4 launch in Galway. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“In certain positions or certain clubs, fellas don’t get on as well with their direct competition but I’m in a fortunate position that I get on really well with the two lads.

“Dave is living with me and it has been great to get to know him and help him settle in. There’s myself and Joe Maksymiw, who is half Ukrainian, in the house with him so there’s a nice cultural diversity there and certainly some interesting dinner talk.”

While Horwitz continues to acclimatise and familiarise himself with the surroundings and new team-mates in Galway, Carty will be hoping to put a real marker down on Saturday afternoon following Connacht’s encouraging pre-season period.

The out-half featured 21 times for the western province last term, 18 of which were starts, and was overall happy with his form during an otherwise wildly inconsistent season for Connacht under the now departed Kieran Keane. 

“Where the team were last year, there was a lot of ups and downs,” Carty admits.

“One of the main things I focused on last year was my defence and goal-kicking percentage. It’s different when you’re playing here [in Galway] every second week but it went up from 70/71% two years ago to 77% last year so that’s something I’m going to try and bump up again.

“There were a few kicks there that were very kickable that I missed last season, they’re the ones you’ll probably be remembered for most but I think if I can clear them out of my game. Obviously you’ll have the couple of ones that you’ll miss but iI think it’s important that if I can bump that up to the eighties and make my tackle completion better than it was.”

There is certainly a lot of optimism around Galway in the build-up to Saturday’s clash with Dave Rennie’s Glasgow [3pm, TG4], with the camp a much happier place under Friend and the experienced Australian coach has certainly had an early impact on the group.

Not only did the three pre-season wins over Brive, Wasps and Bristol provide encouraging signs, but the renewed spirit, ambition and confidence is tangible with Friend’s philosophy granting the players the freedom to go out and express themselves.

It all seems distinctly similar to the culture Lam had cultivated at the club during his hugely-successful tenure.

“I think maybe when Pat was here, I suppose, we hadn’t really accomplished anything so there was a sense of the unknown,” Carty explains.

“Obviously, since that, the whole club has had success and obviously, we’ve seen the crowd figures have grown over the last few years and even with hurling success of Galway I think Galway in particular now kind of demands there’s success around the place.

“I suppose what Friendy has brought in terms of that is just the little ‘one percenters’. At times over the last couple of years we’ve kind of got confused and thought about the whole structure of the place, the wider picture but Friendy has brought those small ‘one percenters’ which if you keep continuing them every day and every day, those habits will become something big and that’s what we have seen over pre-season.

“It has been a good pre-season for us, everything has gone really well, we’ve had three good wins but it won’t really mean that much if we don’t go out and have a great start to the season so that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Jack Carty Carty has won 103 caps for his home province. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

That’s been the key message this week; championships are not won in pre-season but can be lost. And Connacht are under no illusions of the size of the task which faces them not just on Saturday but over the course of the campaign, as they look to rediscover their best form and, in turn, begin to scale the heady heights of 2016 all over again.

Glasgow — last year’s Conference A winners, and a side stocked with international quality — in front of a packed Sportsground is the perfect chance to send out a statement. 

“Yeah, I think so,” Carty agrees. “But Glasgow will be trying to do the same thing. They’ve just got threats all over the pitch. For us is it’s about focusing on our game, obviously we’ve had a look at Glasgow, but if we bring physicality, tempo and accuracy to our game — you would have seen it last year when we brought those three things, especially in our inter-provincial games hey were the things that won us games. And flip it, they were the things we didn’t have when we lost games so if we focus on ourselves and focus on those three elements we’ll be very close to winning the game at the weekend.

“We’ve worked hard and now the most important thing is we go out and get a big result at the weekend because that work we’ve done, it’ll be disappointing for us not to get a big result and I think the last two years our starts haven’t been great and it has left us in a place where we’ve been trying to catch up on ourselves. With that in mind, the first three games are vitally important for us.”

They’re coining it the ‘month of champions’ around these parts, and certainly the path Connacht’s first season takes under Friend will depend very much on how quickly they get out of the blocks in the coming weeks.

After Glasgow, there are home games against Zebre, Scarlets and Leinster either side of a trip to Murrayfield to face an ever-improving and evolving Edinburgh side who defied expectations to reach the Pro14 play-offs under Richard Cockerill last term. 

The significance of those games means it’s difficult to look beyond September just yet, but Carty knows this squad need to be targeting a return to Champions Cup rugby at the very least. 

“We haven’t set anything in stone, for this group, initially, I think we have to strive to get into Europe,” he adds. “We haven’t been there in the last two seasons and that was a disappointment. I think for the fans, they deserve top-tier rugby.

“The players obviously want to be challenging themselves at the highest level, week in, week out. If we get there, that would be great but we obviously have bigger aspirations but I think that’s the fundamental one we’re going for initially and then once we hit that, we can reassess our goals and then strive for play-offs.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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