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'I'm not sure what sort of welcome he'll get, we'll wait and see'

Joey Carbery returns to the RDS as a Munster player for the first time this afternoon.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year makes.

A penny for Joey Carbery’s thoughts as he makes his way off the Munster team bus around the back of the RDS this afternoon, and begins that familiar walk towards the dressing rooms under the old Anglesea Stand.

Exactly 12 months ago, he turned for the home shed and pulled on the blue jersey to kick the winning points for Leinster as they edged their southern rivals by the narrowest of margins at the end of a thrilling semi-final.

Joey Carbery Carbery in action for Leinster in last year's semi-final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Today, in a repeat tie of perhaps even greater significance and magnitude for both sides, Carbery will arrive at the Ballsbridge venue as an away player, his first return to a former home since last summer’s move south. 

While the 23-year-old has faced his native province and erstwhile team-mates at the Aviva Stadium and Thomond Park, this afternoon’s game at the RDS — where he won 14 of his 37 Leinster appearances — is of added substance.

“I am really looking forward to it, to be honest,” he said during the week. “It will be weird being in the other dressing room but no, I can’t wait to get out there.”

While Carbery’s move to Munster has been seamless, so much so he is now firmly settled in Limerick having signed a long-term contract extension, the last few months have been deeply frustrating for the Athy man.

A hamstring tear sustained during Ireland’s Six Nations win in Edinburgh has seen him play just 36 minutes since, and even then his brief cameo in Munster’s Champions Cup victory at Murrayfield only aggravated the problem.  

His return to fitness for this game could not have been more timely, and Carbery’s presence at 10 is a major fillip for Johann van Graan’s side as they bid to record just their second win at the RDS, and first since 2008.

Once a fan’s favourite around these parts, it will be fascinating to see what sort of welcome Carbery receives from the Leinster fans come 2.30pm this afternoon.

“From the players or the fans?” Leo Cullen smiles. “I honestly don’t know [what reception he'll get]. It’s strange, obviously, Joey came in and played this game last year and the Wednesday after the season finished, after the Pro14 final, I got a call from Joey telling me he was moving off.

“So, yeah, we were gutted to lose Joey last year with the investment gone into him but that’s part of the sport, you know?

“In theory, we thought he was going to be still here, involved with us, at this stage of the season but he’s playing for another team now and we just have to get on with it and move on.

“I’m not sure what sort of welcome he’ll get, we’ll wait and see.”

Although his first season at Munster has been disrupted by that hamstring damage, there have been several standout moments along the way, notably his outstanding performance at Gloucester in the Champions Cup and the manner in which he guided van Graan’s men to victory over Leinster at Thomond Park over the Christmas period.

After a difficult day in Castres back in December, Carbery hasn’t missed a single place kick for Munster since, with his run of successful shots at goal standing at 21. 

“I haven’t seen a huge amount of him,” Cullen said, when asked what he has made of Carbery’s season in red. “He’s still a very dangerous broken-field runner, you see particularly when he’s in the backfield and the ball is kicked down to him, he’s an unbelievably dangerous counter-attacker.

“He’s built up his experience, he works hard on his game, his kicking has been very good so, from our point of view, our discipline is going to be hugely important because his kicking accuracy has been really good this year. He seems to have settled in down there, he seems to be happy. As we know, he’s hugely talented.”

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at yesterday's press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Carbery punished Leinter’s ill-discipline in that fiery inter-pro when the visitors arrived too emotionally overcooked for the fixture, as Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong saw first-half yellow and James Lowe was dismissed for a dangerous tackle on an airborne Andrew Conway.

One of the abiding memories from that game was Johnny Sexton standing over Carbery on the far touchline at Thomond during one of many heated flashpoints between the sides, but the Leinster captain has to settle for a place on the bench today.

Cullen yesterday said his decision to start Ross Byrne ahead of the World Player of the Year was to inject freshness into his side following a bruising defeat to Saracens just seven days ago, particularly when Leinster expect another physical onslaught later.

The Leinster head coach made the same alteration 12 months ago after their win in Bilbao, but the difference then was that Sexton was carrying a knock and missed out completely, whereas here he is named on the bench.

It is a fascinating, and potentially bold, move from Cullen for a game of this magnitude, although Byrne has consistently shown his capacity to step into the breach on the big occasion and direct Leinster. That out-half battle is just one of many piquant sub-plots this afternoon.

“We tried to manage the group again and Johnny has been good,” Cullen explained.

“He’s leading in a slightly different role this week and he’s such an important voice in the group. For us to be able to have that balance, obviously Ross has played a huge chunk of the games for us this year, particularly in the Pro14.

To have that balance and Johnny coming off the bench, Scott [Fardy] as well, and some of the other players in there, the fresh energy I guess they will be able to bring as well, the quality in terms of the number of games these guys have played in this campaign.

“We’ve used plenty of players and the group is nice and competitive. It’s always a tricky selection. We talked about it last year, the selection for the semi-final being tricky as well and it’s no different. What was it six changes last year and we’ve four this year but there’s probably a few more on the bench so something pretty similar overall.

“It was just trying to get that balance between being respectful of that physical challenge that we had last week, the toll and the mental challenge and trying to get a bit of fresh energy into the group, even Rhys [Ruddock] coming in and starting as skipper, it just shares the load, shares the burden and hopefully we have a strong team and a good balance between what we have starting and what we have on the bench as well.” 

With this being their ninth Pro14 semi-final in the last 10 years, Leinster are no strangers to these occasions but the dynamic of this week has been different in the sense Cullen’s men are coming off the back of a first European final defeat. 

“This year it was very different, because I think the players would have liked to play the actual final the following day again. They want to just play a game again. So it’s totally different,” Cullen admits, as his side prepare to put their Pro14 crown on the line today.

“We all feel the pain of the loss because there’s so much work that has gone into it. The players on the pitch, we’re just trying to facilitate those guys so they can be as good as they can possibly be.

“And like they’re all pushing so bloody hard, you can see it means a lot to them.

When you lose a game, I guess it heightens the senses and there’s a bit of emotion around the place with the group because there’s so much disappointment.

Cullen added: “It’s going to require a full, physical effort from everyone this week because they’re an opposition that are highly motivated. I’ve heard numerous people in their team over the course of the season talking about how desperate they are to win silverware before leaving the province, so we know it’s going to be a great challenge.”

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Ryan Bailey

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