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'A team like Munster coming in for me, I was a bit star-struck really'

Welsh-born James McCarthy was recruited by the Munster academy of the start of the season and has made a big impression already for Ireland U20s.

IN A QUIET corner of Buccaneers RFC, James McCarthy catches his breath. Takes it all in. His neck is a little sore, the after-effects of being hit by Bundee Aki. But he says he’ll be fine for next week. Just a bang. It’ll take more than that for him to miss Wales.

James McCarthy James McCarthy has scored three tries during this year's U20 Six Nations. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Tall and lean, McCarthy is of athletic build. You can see why he’s a winger. Speed and quick feet are two of his biggest strengths. Just ask France or Italy. He was a decent footballer, too. But rugby is now his priority. That’s why he’s here, away from family and friends.

McCarthy has only just turned 19. He looks it. Limerick is now his home, and has been for the last six months. It has been difficult to settle in at times but he has no regrets. His team-mates — both at Munster and Ireland — have helped the process. He knows it was the right move.

Less than a year ago, McCarthy received a call. He had only recently scored a brace of tries for Wales U18 Schools against Ireland in what was to be his last appearance for the country of his birth. The IRFU wanted him and a place in the Munster academy was on offer.

“I’d never think in a million years they’d be interested in me but I couldn’t really say no,” he tells The42. “A team like Munster coming in for me, I was a bit star-struck really.”

McCarthy was highly-rated within the Welsh system. He was their rising star and a member of the Newport Gwent Dragons academy. But when Munster came calling, it was an opportunity too good to turn down. His father is Irish and although he was born and raised in Newport, strong connections with the province have always remained on both sides of the family.

A trip over to Limerick confirmed this was what McCarthy wanted. Munster’s high performance base was like nothing he had seen back in Wales and the opportunity to combine rugby and academic studies next door in University of Limerick appealed to both player and parents.

“I decided to go for it.”

Wales’ loss, Ireland’s gain.

Whirlwind is one way of describing what followed. He doesn’t really know how to sum it up, and who could blame him. He hasn’t really thought about it either; how far he has come, or just where he has come from to get to this point. But here he is, fully immersed in the Irish system and rapidly becoming one of the stars of the U20s side.

James McCarthy scores his side's fourth try Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McCarthy has just taken it all in his stride. A Six Nations debut ended with the disappointment of defeat but that campaign opener in Bordeaux wasn’t without its positives. His try-scoring performance was one, and he followed it up against Italy at Donnybrook.

“It’s been good,” he smiles. “The Six Nations is a good learning curve for me especially because I’ve been able to score a few tries. As a team we’ve got a lot we can improve on but, yeah, it’s been good.”

McCarthy was man of the match in the round two win over Italy, thanks in part to his first-half double which set Noel McNamara’s side on their way to a first championship victory of 2018. The second of which was an eye-catching chip, chase and finish in the far corner.

It appeared the teenager had overcooked his kick but showed his speed off the mark to make up the ground to take advantage of a fortunate bounce. The leaping finish required athleticism and bravery, and got people talking.

“It is a bit weird seeing all the stuff on social media about my performance,” McCarthy admits.

“So it’s all a new world for me but I just have to keep my head down and get on with it.”

He’s done a pretty good job so far, and certainly is now highly-regarded by Munster, who were extremely keen to bring McCarthy to the club through the IRFU’s Exiles pathway. It seems he’s made a big impression in a short space of time.

McCarthy has trained with Johann van Graan’s senior squad in UL regularly and has had discussions with Felix Jones to identify areas of his game where he can improve and work on with the academy coaches.

“When I was first asked to train with the seniors, I was nervous. But then just kept telling myself to do the basics right and it’s fine then. Keith Earls has been helping me out, and I’ve doing one on ones with Andrew Conway and Ronan O’Mahony. They’ve been helping me a lot.”

James McCarthy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

A product of Caerleon Comprehensive and Newport High School Old Boys, McCarthy gained a rich rugby education through the Welsh underage system but only took the sport up at the age of 12. Football had occupied his formative years, and at one stage he was even part of the Bristol Rovers academy.

“I wasn’t too bad,” he says.

It was on a rugby pitch where he truly excelled though. An invite to attend a club session from one of his teachers because he was a ‘quick footballer’ was ultimately the start of this remarkable journey to where he is now, training opposite Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in front of 3,000 fans at Dubarry Park.

“Since that day my teacher stuck me on the wing, I’ve loved it.”

As a young Welsh winger, Shane Williams was someone McCarthy naturally looked up to and, more recently, Scarlets winger Liam Williams has provided the inspiration.

“I just love how he plays. Just get your hands on the ball and run.”

Simple.

But like all players of that ilk, McCarthy is having to work hard in the gym. He’s been told to bulk up and is drinking a post-session protein shake as we chat. He has put on weight since arriving in Ireland but there is some way to go. He noticed that against Bundee earlier.

“It’s a big step-up and I’m still getting used to it. Back in Wales I would have only done one or two days in the gym where here it’s every day and so professional. It’s hard but I can see the benefits already.”

His rugby is coming along, too. Training with the senior squads accelerates that development process — see Jordan Larmour’s rise — but McCarthy knows it’s on the U20s stage where he can really stand out.

James McCarthy celebrates scoring his side's fourth try with Sean Masterson and Tommy O'Brien Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He’ll need to get his head right for Friday, though. It’ll be different. It’ll be difficult. He shared the same dressing room with those guys as recently as last April, four of them were in the same club in Newport and another was in McCarthy’s class in school. He would have been in that Welsh team coming to Donnybrook this week had he not been courted by the IRFU’s head of international talent ID, Joe Lydon.

“It’ll be good I’m sure, but I’m more focused on my team and us winning. They were all really supportive of my move. They’re all still my friends.”

They’re all chasing different dreams now. Schmidt is on the far side of the room briefing print media. The conversation revolves around Wales. That’s where McCarthy wants to get to. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel a million miles away.

“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he adds. “It’s hard not to think about playing for Ireland, but obviously just take one step at a time and that’s with the U20s.

“If I can shine in this and work hard back with Munster, then who knows what will happen.”

McCarthy knows better than anyone that unexpected opportunities can lie around the corner. It just comes down to seizing the right one.

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Ryan Bailey

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