Sport Autumn Internationals

Tuesday 10 December 2019

'I want to be involved in every game like everyone.'

The fire still burns bright for Gordon D'Arcy as he wins his 81st cap

Gordon D'Arcy has a fight on his hands to retain his place as an Ireland starter. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Gordon D'Arcy has a fight on his hands to retain his place as an Ireland starter. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Gordon D'Arcy
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Gordon D'Arcy doesn't do reflection very often but he remembers being the new kid on the block. That's why, when the Leinster centre was informed he wouldn't be winning his 80th cap against South Africa, he rowed in behind the fresh face in the No12 jersey.

Joe Schmidt spoke highly of his veteran back who primed Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne for the rigours of international rugby, but for the man himself it was all part of the gig.

"It's an automatic response, but it doesn't make it any easier," he says.

"I'm a competitor like everybody here and I want to be involved in every game. It's never nice to be left out in the cold.

"But, I had this experience when I was young and it would be very irresponsible for me not to pass it on. It's what's best for the team and that's preparing Robbie in the best way possible and helping Jared whatever way I could.

"That's what it is, it's very easy to do the seen things and tick the boxes when people are looking, it's the unseen things that only you know if you're being professional or not."

D'Arcy prides himself on his professionalism, putting in extra hours away from training to ensure his body keeps going well into his 30s and having the correct attitude when it comes to camp.

Today, he joins Henshaw in the centre with the youngster from Athlone moving out one. As well as his normal job of defending the No12 channel and taking the game to the Australians, he will cast a watchful eye to his outside every so often and ensure the 21-year-old is where he's supposed to be.

Astray

It's nothing patronising, he just knows the value in having an experienced player on hand from his own early days as a full-back at Leinster and then when he was converted to centre during the 2004 season as he earned "a second bite at the apple" having gone astray in his early 20s.

"At the start, Conor O'Shea was a really good grounding figure for me. I played with him, he was really good and he pointed me in the right direction," he recalls.

"I only had 15 months maybe with Conor and then was left to my own devices which history shows probably wasn't the best thing in the world.

"But when I did get a second bite at the apple, yeah, Kevin Maggs was a big help and Rob Henderson too a little bit.

"During the transition to centre, Brian (O'Driscoll) obviously wasn't around but when he did come back in, he was pretty good to me."

He and Henshaw both know there will come a time when the youngster must sink or swim and he demonstrated his ability without armbands a fortnight ago against South Africa.

"I was playing with good out-halves like ROG and Felipe (Contepomi) - that makes it easy when you have an out-half of that calibre," says D'Arcy. "They put you in the right spots, they demand things of you and, to a certain extent, you have to learn as you go.

"You're there for a reason and you don't want to change that too much. Primarily, it's because you're good on the ball and you just have to learn that bit more on the run."

D'Arcy and Henshaw first crossed paths when the elder statesman visited Athlone in the mid-2000s and posed for pictures with members of the Marist College Junior Cup team, which included his future partner and current Connacht out-half Jack Carty.

They are both part of an elite club of players capped by Ireland as teenagers in the professional era. Henshaw was six when D'Arcy made his debut in 1999. The 34-year-old is impressed with how the former Westmeath minor has developed and is excited by his potential.

"He impressed me last year and he impressed me when I played against him recently as well," he says. "He's a top player, a top athlete and a really nice guy as well, which gives you the full package. He plays with a smile on his face, he's aggressive, likes to play with ball in hand but mix it up as well.

"We're only getting to see the start of this guy and Joe's the kind of coach who can get the best out of him over the next 10 years."

The problem with impressive new talents is they're after you're job. D'arcy missed the first couple of training sessions due to a groin injury and all of a sudden found himself out of the team. It was a reminder, if he needed one, that his place is there to be earned.

"You come in like everyone else and you expect nothing. You just try and deliver on the training field. Joe saw Robbie at 12 and liked what he saw, he liked what he delivered," adds D'Arcy.

"Some things are out of your hands - you just have to go with it. I'm back in now as a result of (injury). You just have to take every opportunity that comes - when you get them you have to make yourself indispensable and show you need to be in there every game."

That is why D'Arcy is not getting carried away with Ireland winning six games in a row and rising to third in the world. He has more parochial matters on his mind.

"The thing with November is it's a three-match series, but there's no trophy at the end of it," he says.

"The Six Nations finishes there and you win at the end and you can enjoy it for a few days before you go back to Leinster.

"Whereas, this is like a building block. It's three matches with no trophy at the end of it, no hoopla or anything - it's just how good can we be, what drives us to be as good as we can.

"It's about seeing can we play well against South Africa, can we play well against Georgia and can we deliver against Australia? There is a certain mental challenge in this.

"All of those other things can be a distraction, I wouldn't have thought about them too much to be honest. I'd be much more worried about my individual performance and my individual place in this squad at the moment.

"That's where I'd be, one match at a time and not even thinking about Leinster which is coming around the corner very quickly after this finishes, not thinking about the Six Nations or the World Cup.

"The great thing about playing a team of the calibre of Australia is it focuses your attention."

The nature of a centre partnership has evolved over D'Arcy's time in the midfield, even if the perception of those watching on hasn't moved on as quickly. Fans still expect to see the No12 and 13 link up in midfield off set-piece ball a la him and O'Driscoll, but the game has developed and the inside man is expected to gain the hard yards off first-phase first before engaging in the fancy stuff. To say it's more a defensive partnership is simplifying things, D'Arcy says, but it has changed.

"I think the expectation is of five years ago where the No13 will run off my shoulder and make a big, searing gap. It's not like that, it's more link play for the 12 and 13 to get together and get the winger around the edge," he says.

"That's the modern game, you know. It might be a fade line, a half-break with an off-load - putting someone into space.

"Joe wants these things as well, it's the work off the ball, what are they doing. What we're doing off the ball, our work-rate."

Over the course of his 80 caps, D'Arcy has only met Australia four times which he puts down to lots of tours of New Zealand.

Still, he has seen enough from them to respect what's coming, particularly given the fact D'Arcy's old coach Michael Cheika is pulling the strings.

"They're hard, they have that X-factor, the Springboks and the Kiwis have great individuals, but they're a bit more true to form," he said.

"They like to spring a surprise, they play head's-up rugby and always have - they have had a reasonably high turnover of coaches but the philosophy has always been the same. I'd say Cheiks is going to try and bring a bit of order to that."

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