Ireland lock Joe McCarthy. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
fresh faces

McCarthy's meteoric rise continues as O'Brien finally gets his chance

The 22-year-old lock and 26-year-old versatile back are included on the Ireland bench.

JOE MCCARTHY HASN’T so much thundered up the ladder of professional rugby as flown straight past it on his way to the highest level.

This is a fella who only made his Leinster debut in January of last year. He has started just one Champions Cup game.

McCarthy’s Ireland debut came a year ago. The 22-year-old has four caps for Ireland.

And yet, he will feature in a World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand this Saturday night in front of around 80,000 people at the Stade de France.

With James Ryan ruled out due to injury, McCarthy takes his place on the Irish bench and he’ll be tasked with adding energy and physicality in the second half as Ireland attempt to secure their place in the semi-finals.

McCarthy has experienced nothing like this before. He was involved in the Champions Cup final in 2022 but only got four minutes off the bench in Leinster’s defeat to La Rochelle.

His most important appearance for Ireland so far has been a 19-minute cameo on debut against Australia last November. He impressed against Italy and England in the World Cup warm-ups over the summer, and again in the World Cup opener against Romania, but this weekend will be at another level altogether.

Ireland are confident the 22-year-old will step up. They had another option as the back-up lock in Ryan Baird. While he has been playing at blindside flanker recently, Baird started in the second row for Ireland in their Grand Slam-sealing win over England only a few months ago. With 15 caps to his name, Baird was the more experienced option for Ireland.

McCarthy gets the nod, though, and it was telling that Farrell was talking about him even last week when asked about the decision to bring Iain Henderson into the second row and drop Ryan to the bench for the Scotland game.

“Big, young Joe McCarthy is part of the equation as well,” said Farrell. “The competition for places in the second row is exactly where it should be and they all know that.”

joe-mccarthy McCarthy at Ireland training in France. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell likes the energy and attitude McCarthy brings. The Leinster man is a bit of a dog on the pitch, a relentlessly annoying presence for the opposition and a huge man who knows how to throw his weight around. He is not just about size, though. McCarthy has adapted well to the demands put on Ireland’s forwards around ball-handling and work-rate off the ball.

Farrell first called him up for a week during the 2022 Six Nations and even after that brief stint, the reports were positive. They brought him to New Zealand last year and McCarthy played in the two midweek games against the Maori All Blacks. His discipline was a concern that Ireland’s coaches flagged but they liked everything else.

The Leinster man benefitted from working closely with Paul O’Connell on the Emerging Ireland tour last year and his Ireland debut last autumn was the culmination of lots of progress behind the scenes.

McCarthy had a fine pre-season this summer and after those sharp warm-up performances, he got a big chance against Romania in a team that was otherwise close to full-strength. He took his opportunity in a try-scoring performance and, crucially, he has been training strongly ever since.

But for Ryan’s injury, McCarthy might not have played again in this World Cup but now he is building up for a quarter-final.

“He’s been brilliant,” said Ireland lock Tadhg Beirne today. “His head is so screwed on for such a young guy. His willingness to learn is unbelievable. For the size of them, he is such an athlete as well. You would be amazed at how easy he is to lift in the lineout for the size of him.

“He is an incredible athlete, he works extremely hard and he is always one of the best trainers as well. It’s no surprise to see him rise the way he has and I feel like he is only going to get better.”

Meanwhile, the versatile Jimmy O’Brien gets his chance in the number 23 shirt this weekend, replacing Stuart McCloskey after the Ulster centre impressed off the bench against Scotland last time out.

jimmy-obrien Jimmy O'Brien has had to be patient at the World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell said that given the disruption with the injury issues for Mack Hansen and James Lowe, Ireland felt it prudent to have specialist back three cover on the bench.

O’Brien is a specialist at covering a few positions. He’s a class fullback, a clever left wing, a flexible right wing, and a fine outside centre. He only has seven caps but has already played in three of those positions for Ireland.

Though he’s still relatively inexperienced in Test rugby, O’Brien played 54 minutes against the Springboks on his debut last autumn, which was at outside centre. He played the full 80 on the left wing against Australia two weeks later, as well as doing 40 minutes at fullback in the Grand Slam-sealing win over England.

O’Brien has earned trust in a short space of time. Farrell revealed today that he hadn’t been available for the opening two games of this World Cup due to a shoulder injury he picked up during the warm-ups. O’Brien’s return to fitness in recent weeks has been timely, with the injury concerns for Ireland’s wings meaning O’Brien was the ideal choice at 23 against the All Blacks.

Farrell called O’Brien “unbelievably smart, nice and cool and calm and collected,” which neatly sums him up. O’Brien gets his World Cup debut in the biggest game yet and like McCarthy, there is great confidence within the Ireland set-up that he can deliver when called on.

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