The journey trodden from the ranks of Dublin University Football Club (DUFC) to those of Leinster Rugby Club is a trek not untraversed.
Ryan Baird, Jack Dunne, Conor O’Brien and, of course, Jamie Heaslip are some of the more recent and notorious pilgrims of said path.
Of course, what this journey lacks in novelty is no way an infringement upon its eminence. Playing professional rugby for one of the consistently best sides in Europe is nothing short of impressive.
However, what strikes one when talking to Trinity – and now Leinster – lock Joe McCarthy, is how difficult it is to discern any distinction in his achievement of playing for the United Rugby Championship leaders.
Third-year international business undergraduate McCarthy made his Leinster debut in January at Cardiff Rugby, playing the full 80 minutes and producing a more than solid display.
Hearing him describe the pinnacle (to date) of his budding career, you would be forgiven for failing to have deduced the magnitude of the moment.
“I found [in] the first like 20 minutes, I was blowing hard, but once I got into the actual game it did just seem like another rugby game. Obviously though it was definitely a step up, but I feel like rugby is just kind of rugby at the end of the day.”
That is not to say McCarthy was totally immune to the significance of the occasion.
Leinster was definitely a step up, but I feel like rugby is just kind of rugby at the end of the day
“I was growing up like my whole life just watching Leinster as a young kid with season tickets, going to all the games and so then to actually play with like some of the players that I watched on TV and looked up to … yeah it’s quite surreal”.
While Leinster lost that Cardiff game 29-27, McCarthy was not deemed a liability – quite the contrary, he played well enough to earn a second appearance a few weeks later against South African side The Lions.
Here, McCarthy more than played well: with 10 carries for 46m, the second highest number of tackles (12) in the team and forcing the highest number of turnovers (two) in the team, McCarthy delivered an outstanding performance.
A stream of statistics all the more impressive considering the physicality and nous required of his position in the lineout and loose, juxtaposed with the fact that he is just 20 years of age.
In characteristically unflappable fashion, McCarthy is not getting ahead of himself.
“I haven’t really thought too far ahead … I’m just trying to perform as well as I can and just not think too far ahead about things that I can’t really control. So every time I play I’ll try to put my best foot forward and I’ll be hoping to see if I can get a few more opportunities before the end of the season with Leinster.”
I haven’t really thought too far ahead. I’m just trying to perform as well as I can and just not think too far ahead about things that I can’t really control
In addition – though seemingly obsolete given McCarthy’s passive imperturbability – McCarthy has many a helping hand to aid him harness his rapid rise.
With the aforementioned link between Leinster and Trinity, McCarthy need look no further than Ryan Baird – who has progressed even further since his Leinster debut and is now in the Irish Six Nations squad.
“I’d see him at Leinster like every day because we’d be training together, but at the moment he’s obviously away with the Six Nations squad. But yeah, I talked to him a good bit, and I actually played a Trinity game with him when I was in first year as well.”
On top of that, there is also the more avuncular figure of DUFC strength and conditioning coach Ian Hirst, who wore both Trinity and Leinster jerseys in his playing days too.
“Yeah he’s class. Everyone loves him at Trinity because he does a lot of like the S&C side and he does all the video work, and takes the forwards in the scrum and the lineout. He’s also a pretty experienced player so yeah, he’s really good like, he’s just a great lad around the place.”
I probably wasn’t really on the Leinster radar or anything. And then playing like senior rugby with Trinity straight away that’s kind of when Leinster really took notice
“He knows his stuff from like an S&C point of view really well. So there’s a few things [to learn] from him. He is a prop so he’s big into scrums and stuff so yeah, he offered a bit of advice because I’m second row.”
Whilst grateful to his Trinity coaches for helping navigate his new Leinster life, he is even more grateful to them for enabling him to be in his current position in the first place. Before he arrived at Trinity, a professional rugby career was not destiny for McCarthy.
“I was kind of a bit of a like a late bloomer I’d say because coming up through school I didn’t really get picked on many first teams until about my final year in school.
“And then just kind of in my final year like, I wouldn’t even have thought I would’ve made [the Blackrock College first team] and then after the Senior Cup I got a call.”
“It improved me so much [playing for Trinity] because like I probably wasn’t really on the Leinster radar or anything. And then playing like senior rugby with Trinity straight away that’s kind of when they [Leinster] really took notice. I learned a lot from like Tony because the way that Trinity play they move the ball, they play fast, and it’s kind of similar to how Leinster want to play as well.
McCarthy also reserved praise for DUFC Forwards Coach Hugh Maguire.
“He’s kind of more of like an old-school forwards coach but he’s really open to like learning new ideas and having your input. So my core skills of being a second row like improved loads because I got to call the lineout in my first year”.
Of course, whilst the calibre of DUFC’s coaching staff is self evident, what the modest McCarthy has neglected to mention is that it requires an exceptionally receptive student to adopt all the coaches’ advice in such a short space of time.
And the fact that he went from not playing in the Blackrock first team to playing for Leinster – in two years – demonstrates just how ably he adapted to Smeeth, Hirst and Maguire.
Much of the onus to reconcile these newly acquired rugby responsibilities with his antecedent academic schedule, will inevitably fall to McCarthy himself. Discipline and commitment on all fronts will be required.
However, this is an exigency that he is not only aware of, but one which he intends to embrace in his understatedly methodical manner.
Leinster really push Academy players to focus on their degree because, obviously, rugby doesn’t last forever
“Sometimes you miss a few lectures here and there and kind of work to catch up in the evenings when you’re done training, so it’s kind of a good balance. I feel sometimes it’s kind of good to switch off to do a bit of college work and not think about rugby for a bit.”
“Trinity are pretty helpful, say if I need to like move an exam, or maybe get an extension on a project, they’re usually pretty helpful about stuff. And then Leinster really push Academy players to focus on their degree because like, obviously, like rugby doesn’t last forever.”
It may also be argued that the weight of his studies may be a blessing in helping keep McCarthy grounded. Although, given the maturity he has demonstrated thus far, such a safety net may be excessive.
Indeed, the furthest McCarthy could be accused of looking ahead was when he was asked to stake his predictions for the upcoming England vs Ireland clash at Twickenham on Saturday.
“When you play English teams are always real physical, especially at home and you don’t know what you’re gonna get. But I think Ireland are playing pretty well, they move the ball around a lot…I back Ireland to get the win”.
More certain than the outcome of Saturday’s Six Nations fixture, is the fact that Joe McCarthy possesses the talent, mentality, and youth to have a considerable career in professional rugby.
And who knows – it may not even be too long before it is his name penned into an Irish squad to play at Twickenham. Not that you’ll hear any suggestion of the sort coming from him.