As former Ireland and Leinster star Gordon D’Arcy releases his second children’s book, the rugby icon and co-author Paul Howard reveal why his rollercoaster life provides great lessons for young readers
As the writer of the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series of books, Paul Howard is no stranger to giving big-name rugby stars cameos in his books.
Which is why, when he first saw Gordon D’Arcy’s number come up on his phone, he was initially alarmed.
“I never really know when a former player rings me whether they’ve just been annoyed by something I’ve written,” Howard admits. “When he called, I thought maybe he didn’t like that one line about him in the last book.”
As it happens, D’Arcy didn’t have a bone to pick with the bestselling author. What he was actually after was a potential collaboration. “I was out for a walk with my sister and my two little kids, and we were laughing about something or other to do with rugby and she said: ‘You should write a kids’ book,’” D’Arcy recalls.
“That was genuinely the start of the idea. One thing I like about Paul is his humour — the subtle, the not so subtle, and everything in between. He’s the only person who I felt could deliver what was in my head, really. It was Paul or no one.”
Adds Howard: “I thought that Gordon wanted to talk to me about ghostwriting a straight autobiography and my first reaction was: ‘How am I going to get out of this?’”
D’Arcy floated the idea of writing his life story in a series of children’s books. Immediately seeing the potential, Howard was on board.
“Jerry Flannery [retired rugby player] then said: ‘There has to be something poetic about you writing a book for kids,’” D’Arcy admits. “I thought I’d have a better way of explaining my career through the lens of a child.”
For Howard, who has written 20 Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books, a handful of plays and many non-fiction books, the move into children’s literature was new terrain.
“Oh, it’s much more different than writing for adults,” he says. “There are all sorts of handling devices when you’re writing for children. All subtlety goes out the window, but lots of things also have to get filtered.”
The first book in their collaboration, Gordon’s Game, became a bestseller last year. It charts the story a school-aged Gordon, a star player in Wexford Wanderers who dreams of one day wearing the Ireland jersey. The only thing in the way of his goal is… well, him. The book series charts the highs and lows of Gordon’s professional life, from nearly being sacked from the squad at the outset of his career to “making an eejit of himself in front of millions of people”. D’Arcy’s winding path to success is perfect for kids’ books, where the overall message is the power of learning from mistakes, taking responsibility for one’s actions, keeping perspective amid difficulty, and not going with the crowd.
D’Arcy, who was still boarding at Clongowes Wood in Kildare when he got called up for Ireland, very much went along with the crowd. For years, his mum likened him to a “Labrador with a red neck bow around his neck” – full of enthusiasm, but easily misdirected.
“It was very easy to follow the crowd,” D’Arcy admits. “I was at boarding school for six years, with 36 bells going off daily. It was fairly regimented, so the easy option was to go with the crowd.” This meant not taking training as seriously as he might have; scoffing five kebabs before a weigh-in and suchlike, D’Arcy reveals. His attitude did not go down well with the higher ups.
“Matt Williams [rugby coach] told me I had four weeks to save my rugby career. There was a period where I had to make changes, basically to undo the reputation I’d built in the previous 18 months,” D’Arcy adds. “The problem with being a professional athlete is the emotional rollercoaster: winning the Heineken Cup is the happiest day of your life, but the next day is one of the emptiest days of your life and you really feel the need to go again.”
Howard explains: “What I love about Gordon’s story is that a series like this wouldn’t work for every player. The modern players of the game have a pretty straight line to where they’re going — they’re taken into the academy when they’re quite young, they’re taught how to speak to the media, taught what to eat, how to hydrate, how to train. Gordon was the first of a bunch of players who came into the game that weren’t so cosseted. They made loads and loads of mistakes as they went along. The story has a moral in it, and that gives it real punch.”
When it came to charting the foibles and humiliations of youth, D’Arcy decided to spare no details. “I was bright red reading the final draft,” he laughs. “Every story in the book is based on a kernel of truth. My friends read the last one and were like: ‘Did that really happen?’ And I had to be like: ‘That’s true, I really did do that.’”
In Gordon’s Game: Blue Thunder, Gordon is now “the only kid at school with a Six Nations medal hidden under his pillow”, and is headed for Leinster. In the book, the team are mocked for being soft, fake-tan wearers; most of the people around him actually support Munster.
“That’s the reality of where Leinster were at,” D’Arcy notes. “Munster’s dominance in Europe spans back to 199, and it wasn’t until 2006/7 that Leinster did anything. I knew of an awful lot of people from Leinster supporting Munster. I remember people from Kilkenny having more of a grá for Munster, and that did sting.”
Just as Leinster were finally making gains, D’Arcy had his post-rugby career in mind. His father gently advised him to “buck up”, and so he enrolled in an economics degree in UCD in 2007. At 30, he was one of the mature students in the front row and admits that he was nervous and self-conscious walking into lectures on his first day.
“I’d done quantity surveying in DIT, but wasn’t going to lectures and was basically pissing about,” he admits. “This was different — I was really keen to learn and got there with the help of great lecturers and a great class.”
Post-retirement, D’Arcy founded a Pilates studio, Form School, alongside his wife (former model Aoife Cogan) and, along with a regular newspaper column and occasional commentary, works as a Commercial Director for Brightwater.
He and Howard are working on the third installment of Gordon’s Game, which sees the young star undertake his first Lions tour.
The series is certainly ripe for a big-screen adaptation: “”Yes, I’m very hopeful of Matt Damon playing me,” D’Arcy laughs. “I would love to think of it as an animation [project],” Howard adds. “There are just so many lessons in there and that’s exactly what kids respond to.”
D’Arcy interjects: “I’m very glad you said ‘lessons’ Paul, not the ‘funny s**t I got up to’.”
Gordon’s Game: Blue Thunder (published by Sandycove) is out today, priced €12.99.