Connacht out-half Jack Carty celebrated his 23rd birthday last week while preparing for his fourth GUINNESS PRO12 campaign with the province and the season opener against the Newport Gwent Dragons.
With 36 senior caps to his name, Jack Carty says he is feeling good after the summer, explaining: “I got away on holiday with some of the other lads for nearly two weeks so that was a good break. Then I was working with my dad at home so I started training myself and got two weeks of extra running and gym work under my belt before we were due back for pre-season. It was something I wanted to do since last year and it definitely helped me when it came to the testing in week one.”
Three years ago this September, a fresh-faced 20-year-old made his senior debut for Connacht when he appeared from the bench away to Glasgow Warriors. Carty was still in the Connacht Academy and worked hard behind the scenes to earn his first Connacht start 16 months later against Leinster at the Sportsground in January 2014.
Now a member of the senior leadership group, Carty notices a big difference to where he is now as a player. “I think I’m more of an authoritative player than I was before. I was very shy when I first came in and my communication skills for a 10 wouldn’t have been where they should have been but I think that’s where I’ve improved the most,” admitted the Athlone native.
“Last year we had a lady called Margaret Martin come in to coach a group of us in public speaking and projecting our voice. I really felt that helped me on the pitch. There’s a culture here where lads have to be vocal and willing to challenge and be challenged.”
Last season, Carty made 28 appearances for the province and started in the number 10 jersey in 23 of those games. The former Roscommon minor Gaelic footballer was happy with the game-time but cited the ‘personal highs and lows’ as a big learning curve.
“Playing 10 last year I was probably a bit inexperienced coming in at the start of the season and I was nearly learning on the job, making mistakes – some small, some big – and having to learn from them.
“I suppose all players go through ups and downs in their career. It probably came to me a bit earlier and I probably took a lot of the criticism to heart. It was tough not to read some of it in the media and online and it did have an effect on me.
“But I spoke to a lot of people, like Parksy (Dan Parks) and the more senior guys and their advice was that, ‘it happens in everyone’s career and that it’s how you deal with it that counts’.
“Pat (Lam) backed me last season and I got to play in a lot of games. To know that he had that confidence in me really helped. We would review each game in detail and I was putting in the work on my own game during the week.
“What frustrated me most was my lack of consistency within games as opposed to from game to game, and that’s what I’ve been working on. I think I’ve done well on that so far this season.”
Carty ended the 2014/15 campaign with a man-of-the-match performance that head coach Lam publicly ranked as ‘world class’ in the European Champions Cup qualification play-off against Gloucester.
That game at Kingsholm went to extra-time and agonisingly ended in defeat for Connacht. When asked about his feelings from that day, Carty said: “After the Gloucester game, I was obviously devastated for the team. We had put in what was probably our best performance of the season and after 100 minutes, and leading for so much of the game, it just wasn’t to be.
“Personally, I was happy with my performance, but I was also frustrated and asking myself, ‘why wasn’t I playing like that for the whole year?’ I know I can play like that so it’s just about kicking on again this season.”
All players will have specific areas of their game that they want to improve on and Carty is no different. “Last year it was probably my overall game management and you can only get better at that through playing games. Things like when to kick, when not to kick and then the execution of those kicks was something I had to work on.
“And I think after 35 games, I’ve got that to a good point now but it’s about the consistency both within games and from week to week. A lot of my own focus would also be on getting my head right for the game. I’m seeing a sports psychologist in Dublin, who previously worked with the Olympic Council of Ireland, once every two to three weeks and she’s helping me with that side of things.”
Competition for the number 10 jersey has intensified since last season. Fit-again Craig Ronaldson is back vying for the play-maker spot and Shane O’Leary and already-capped Academy out-half Conor McKeon are also pushing for selection.
“There are four of us there and no one has the 10 jersey nailed on. It’s going to be a battle week in and week out and we’ll thrive on that,” insisted Carty.
The ultimate goal of Champions Cup rugby started last Friday against the Dragons, and the Buccaneers clubman put in an impressive opening night performance, pulling the strings at out-half and kicking 14 of 18 points on offer from the tee.
While getting the first round victory was pleasing, there were frustrations around the westerners’ performance and in particular the defence that let in two Dragons tries, along with a late penalty that secured a losing bonus point for the Welsh side. It was a reminder of last season and the close margins that make a difference.
“We looked at the table again in the summer and said that if we had conceded nine less tries over the season, we would have been in the top four for tries against. And we were only one win away from finishing sixth overall,” added Carty.
“So that just shows how close we were but also emphasises how frustrating it was not to accomplish what we had set out to do. But with that in mind, we are really focused on kicking on this season and achieving our goal.”