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'If you told me a year ago I'd be playing against Ireland, I'd have said you were lying'

23-year-old Athlone man Luke Carty made his debut for the US last weekend.

Luke Carty lines up a kick at goal in Twickenham.
Luke Carty lines up a kick at goal in Twickenham.

THIS WEEKEND WILL be a whistle-stop tour back home for Luke Carty.

The 23-year-old Athlone man will land in Dublin tomorrow with the USA squad, start at out-half against Ireland on Saturday, and board a flight over to the States on Sunday. He’s due to report for training with the LA Giltinis on Monday.

Carty hasn’t been in Ireland since the 20th of January so he’s looking forward to this brief visit, which will involve the biggest occasion of his rugby career so far.

Last weekend brought his Test debut against England in Twickenham, where he hammered over a 50-metre penalty just six minutes in, directed the US attack well, made some superb chop tackles, nailed a touchline conversion, and kicked well from hand.  

Now, he’s set to start at number 10 against his native Ireland.

“It’s the big one,” says Carty, the younger brother of Connacht out-half Jack.

“If you told me a year ago I was going to be playing against Ireland in the Aviva, I would have said you were lying to me.

“I’m just trying not to let the occasion get to me but to enjoy it at the same time.”

He will have plenty of family and friends there to support him, with some of his US team-mates giving him their ticket allocation for the 6,000 crowd. Many of Carty’s friends rang around the rugby clubs of Ireland pleading for tickets.

The former Ireland U18 international hopes to see as many of them as possible after the full-time whistle on Saturday but he will soon be back in the US continuing his professional career with the glamorous Giltinis.

LC Carty's 50-metre penalty.

Carty has been on a whirlwind journey since Connacht boss Andy Friend let him know there wouldn’t be a senior contract there for him when the playmaker’s time with the western province’s academy was coming to an end in 2020.

To his credit, Friend linked Carty with one of his coaching mates, Darren Coleman, who was then in charge of the Gordon club in Sydney. They needed an out-half and Carty was interested in a change of scenery.

“I had my visa,” explains Carty. “I was due to fly on a Tuesday night and Friday before that was when Leo Varadkar came on TV with the big lockdown announcement. That put a halt to my gallop.”

That opportunity gone, Carty decided he was going to pack in his pro rugby dream. He had already seen a move to the English Championship collapse when the RFU pulled funding from the league and Covid meant finding anything else was going to be tricky.

Instead, Carty enrolled in a Master’s degree in the UCD Smurfit Business School and planned on playing on club rugby with his beloved Buccaneers.

But sitting at home in Athlone during the first lockdown, his decision didn’t rest easy with him. So Carty called up his agent – former Connacht and Munster player Keith Matthews – and let him know that he was US-qualified through his New York-born grandmother.

“Maybe a day and a half later, I was talking to [USA head coach] Gary Gold and a few Major League Rugby teams,” says Carty.

“Then I was sitting at home with my brother one of those lockdown nights and I got a call from Darren Coleman to say he had got the job in Giltinis and he asked me to come over. It happened quite quickly.”

Carty has his granny Joan – his father’s mum – to thank for his US eligibility. She was born in New York to Irish parents and they moved back to Ireland when she was 12. 

luke-carty Carty during his time with the Connacht academy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There are US connections on Carty’s mother’s side of the family too. He remembers a holiday to visit his aunt in Virginia, while there’s also an uncle in New York.

The Covid situation in the States meant Carty’s move over was delayed until January of this year but he started his Master’s and has continued it online in the US, logging in at all hours of the night to stay on top of his lectures.

He eventually got into the States via Bermuda, where he and the McNulty brothers – Sean and Harry – had to stay for two weeks.

“There was a ban on travel to the US from the UK and Ireland,” explains Carty.

“There were no embassies open in Europe, the only one that was open was in Bermuda. We had to go there and hit two birds with one stone – out of Ireland for two weeks and getting to the embassy.”

They flew on to LA and a couple of days later, departed to Hawaii with the Giltinis for a month-long training camp. 

Coleman’s men are top of the Western Conference of Major League Rugby, with Carty racking up 11 appearances so far. He lives in Manhattan Beach with some of the other players, a five-minute bike ride from training and across the road from the beach.

The Giltinis have some superstar players and aren’t afraid of hamming it up on Instagram, but Carty says it’s a brilliant place for a young player like him to learn.

luke-carty-kicks-a-penalty Carty kicking at goal for the Ireland U18 Youths side in 2015. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We have good craic off the pitch but we work hard. There’s a lot of guys there who have been involved in successful teams – the likes of Dave Dennis, Adam Ashley-Cooper, and Matt Giteau – so they know what works in good teams.

“We’re pretty ruthless with each other, we train hard, pitch sessions are full-on, we’re in early. Once we’re done training, that’s where the Instagram side of things comes in and the lads have a bit of craic.”

US Eagles boss Gold was impressed with Carty’s performances and included him in the international squad for these July Tests, with an injury for captain and fellow Ireland native AJ MacGinty opening the door for the Roscommon man to start both games.

He’s an international rugby player now but Carty says Gaelic football and soccer were his first passions as a young lad in Athlone.

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“My soccer dreams died when I got dropped for the Kennedy Cup but I played football and rugby all the way through and it was only when I left school that I stopped GAA.”

He, Jack, and middle brother Ben grew up knocking lumps out of each other playing rugby league in the hallway of the family home, or heading out the back kicking a soccer ball or testing their aerial skills with a rugby ball.

Rugby took over through Buccaneers and Marist College as Carty earned his shot in the Connacht academy. He was playing away with Buccs in the All-Ireland League during his academy days and remains very passionate about the club.

“It was really enjoyable playing with my mates there. If you’re in Division 2A and you’re down in Old Crescent getting beat up, or going up north, it’s really enjoyable.

“In my first year out of school, we got promoted to 1A when Jordan Conroy was running around scoring tries for fun but then we went down two divisions. I would have taken that a bit personally because being a club man, I wanted to see us doing well.”

LCC Carty's touchline conversion last weekend.

Carty has no bitter feelings about his time with Connacht and highlights Friend’s effort to help him find another opportunity.

“It was unreal, what you dreamed of growing up in school, wanting to be in the academy in Galway and push on.

“It was obviously disappointing how it ended, there’s no two ways about it. For probably two weeks, I felt sorry for myself and then I just said, ‘Right, they could be right about some areas of my game I need to improve on’ and I tried to take it as a chance to kick on.”

Carty has certainly done so after those brief thoughts of quitting on his pro rugby ambition and he impressed on his Test debut against England last weekend.

He’s humble about the early 50-metre penalty – “I thought I might as well have a crack” – and says playing England was certainly a step up in terms of the demand of repeat efforts.

With four Connacht men in the Ireland matchday 23 and a number of former opponents in Andy Farrell’s selection too, Carty will be lining up against some familiar faces on Saturday.

It will be a special moment for him and then it’s back to the States to try and win the MLR title with the Giltinis, where he signed a one-season deal with the option for a second.

“I didn’t plan on any of this really,” says Carty.

“A year ago I was planning on doing a Master’s and playing club rugby, so I’m going to just keep working hard and see where it takes me.”

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