Dogged persistence lies behind the young Leinster lock’s remarkable ascent to the international ranks

The last time we saw Joe McCarthy in an Ireland jersey, he was the one walking around in the background of the nightmarish drama that was the World Cup quarter-final defeat by New Zealand in Paris.

Front of stage, of course, was Johnny Sexton. The fly-half went out on his shield that night. The cameras turned instinctively to the older stagers in Andy Farrell’s team, men who will not be seen in that arena again. As a kid of 22, McCarthy had a bit-part in the melancholy.

“The dressing room was awful,” says the Leinster and Ireland lock. “It feels like a bit of a nightmare when you get back in the dressing room and you can’t actually believe that’s just happened. You have so much belief in the team to go the whole way and you didn’t envision it going any other way so, yeah, it was tough.

“There was silence for a few minutes and nobody really knows what to say. You feel especially bad for some of the lads, especially Johnny. You were meant to send him off on a high, end his career the way he would have wanted to, and we fell short.”

Joe McCarthy was in a weird place that night.

Broken on one level but knowing that there will be many, many big days to come. Some World Cups, many Six Nations tournaments, Champions Cups and United Rugby Championships. He’s already played in one European final – a loss to La Rochelle in 2002 – and he’s using the memory of it for fuel.

“I meditate a bit,” he says. “Before I go to bed I like to lie on a spike mat and just lose myself for a few minutes. I think about a good carry, even just getting a good breakdown clear-out, things like that. Always positive thoughts. Sometimes I might think about being in a game. How are you reacting if you go behind by a few scores? If I think about it beforehand, I’m not going to be shocked if it happens for real.”

Can we back up a little here? A spike mat?

“I’ve just started doing that recently. I try new things. It’s like a mat with a load of spikes. It’s a little painful but then you relax into it. It’s a good pain, though. You know when you like floss your teeth and it’s kinda sore but it’s kinda nice as well? Usually. I’ll do ten minutes and by the end you don’t want to get off it.”

Joe McCarthy

Celebrating a try (Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Getty Images)

When you hear people talking about big Joe McCarthy, when you hear the eulogies about his size and power and game intelligence, and all those predictions of the decade and more that folk believe he will spend in the Leinster and Ireland second row, you automatically assume that this is a 22-year-old who was destined for greatness.

But he wasn’t. Joe McCarthy has played in a Champions Cup final and at a World Cup but this was not a natural progression. Nobody tipped this. Nobody saw him coming through the ranks at Blackrock College, despite the fact that his hulking presence is hard to miss.

“Not at all,” he laughs. “I meet people from school now and they’re kinda shocked that I’m playing professional rugby. I mean, I wasn’t even near the Junior Cup team. I always loved rugby and had a drive to get better. I really wanted to be on the first team the whole time but I was on the thirds. I was always trying to push but it never happened. I remember the summ

er before the Junior Cup, I was eating loads, trying to bulk up, gymming like crazy and I didn’t even make the squad. I was absolutely gutted.”

McCarthy represents a twist in the tale of the Leinster production line, a kid who might well have been missed but wasn’t. It’s a tribute to his own passion and ability on the one hand, but it’s also a sign of how sophisticated the talent identification process is in the province. Not many players of genuine talent get left behind.

The rise of Joe McCarthy

In McCarthy’s case, it came pretty close to petering out, though.

“I ended up finishing that year coming off the bench for the junior fourths. I was subbing for the junior fourths team.” He laughs at the memory of it. Back then, the notion that he would soon be playing for Leinster and Ireland on the biggest stages the sport can offer would have seemed idiotic.

If you told him then what would be happening to him now he says he’d have walked away from you, presuming you were a madman.

“We won our cup competition with the fourths. It wasn’t the highest level but it was still a trophy. I came off the bench in the final, but then the following year I was nearly giving up rugby altogether. That lasted a few weeks, I was saying to myself, ‘Jeez, am I getting screwed over by coaches here? Is there any point in playing rugby?’ I’d put in the effort and I wasn’t anywhere near it and I was kinda considering giving up.

“But without rugby I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I went back. I was gymming loads, every day after school. I’ve always loved the gym to be fair. I loved the physical side of the game and being able to dominate in contact, and in sixth year it started to happen for me. I made the first team. I stuck at it and, eventually, it came good.”

Leinster try Leicester

McCarthy scores against Leicester (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

McCarthy talks about family, most notably his two brothers, Paddy and Andrew. Paddy is a Leinsterman too, a fine loosehead prop a couple of years his junior. Some operator, Paddy. He was in the Ireland team that won the U20 Grand Slam in 2023 and was a key part of the side that went all the way to the World Cup final last summer.

“Paddy is one of my best mates. We’ve been on different rugby journeys but we’re extremely close. He studied the same degree in Trinity as me, global business, and we do everything together. It’s handy having a brother who knows what you’re going through in rugby. I think I’m more social than him, more outgoing; he keeps to his own more than I do but he loves the craic as well.

“And then there’s Andrew, my older brother. Andrew has Down’s syndrome but no way is he letting the condition get in his way. He plays with a tag rugby team called Seapoint Dragons, loves his basketball, is big into Manchester United and adores Leinster and Ireland rugby.

“He plays table tennis as well. He’s a massive sports fan. I’ve gone down to coach Seapoint. It’s good craic being around the lads. They bring such good energy and don’t worry about the small things in life, they just enjoy where they are. Andrew would be on to me, ‘Jeez, you need to win the Champions Cup this year, don’t you? Ye left it behind you the last time.’ I’ve learned loads from him. He doesn’t worry about social media or what people think about him, he doesn’t care about any of that, he just wants to enjoy life. He’s an unbelievable older brother.

“Some people underestimate somebody with disabilities. I know that if you put time and effort into any kid who has Down’s syndrome it’s crazy how fast they excel. I’ve also realised, through Andrew mostly, that sport can play a massive role in people’s lives. It’s an incredible force for good.”

The speed of Joe McCarthy’s rise has been phenomenal. He only made his Leinster debut in January 2022. His sixth and seventh games were the Champions Cup quarter-final against Leicester and the Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse. His ninth appearance was the final against La Rochelle. He made his Ireland debut, against Australia, that autumn.

Joe McCarthy

Scoring against Romania, in France (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

He recalls the mix of disappointment and shock he felt when he lost on his Leinster debut against Cardiff. “I was really down about it.” His next game, mercifully, was a win over the Lions. “I felt I was pretty dominant, so that was a huge relief. ‘I can play at this level, I’m up to this. I can kick on from here.’ That’s what I was thinking afterwards.

“Like, you need to take your chances, don’t you? The Leinster squad is crazy competitive. There’s a couple of players coming through in my position and they’re excellent, so you have to be ready in every training session. Perform or you won’t be in the team next week. It’s pressurised and tough but it does bring the best out in you.

“At Leinster you refer back to the legacy of the club and the legends that have come before, but the younger lads talk about what we want to add. A lot of us have never won anything. We want to put our stamp on it, to write our own bit of history. Everyone’s so hungry at Leinster and Ireland level. The World Cup was hard to take but we have to move on. There’s a Six Nations down the road and I’d love to be involved. That’s a dream of mine. Get in the mix. Hopefully get a chance. It’ll be brutally hard but nothing is easy.”

Unquestionably Joe McCarthy is a future stalwart of Ireland’s second row but he’s also a contender in the present. Big and powerful, mobile and skilful, and only 22 years old – he’s setting pulses racing in his province and beyond.

Check out the Ireland squad page to see if Joe McCarthy has been selected.

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