Saturday 21 April 2018

Time to sing the praises of modest hero Gordon D'Arcy who belonged on centre stage

Gordon D’Arcy has been a vital part of the Leinster success story
Gordon D’Arcy has been a vital part of the Leinster success story
David Kelly

David Kelly

Nothing became Gordon D'Arcy's professional career like his modest and humble declaration that, sooner rather than later, he will be leaving it.

That he still hungrily cherishes the opportunity to do so upon the highest stage of them all, the World Cup, would provide a poetically symbolic bookend to a quite remarkable career of sustained excellence.

For a sport in which one must submit to the most brutal of physical and mental examinations on a weekly basis, to survive at the highest level for 16 years and emerge relatively unscathed, and with the freedom to choose retirement on his own terms, speaks volumes for this fearsome son of Wexford.

Throughout the highs - three Heineken Cups, four league titles and a Challenge Cup for the devoted one-club man as well as two Six Nations titles and two Lions tours - there have been lows.

"Dark days," as D'Arcy averred to in his searingly honest letter to Leinster supporters via the club's website - he was never going to retire via a grandiose tweet or a prolonged media saga.

From a renewal of his professional habits that had dipped so alarmingly he didn't play for Ireland for three years, to the reinvention as a midfielder that saw him named Europe's best player, to the devastating arm break and series of operations that almost ended his career, his career has not always been adhered to convention.


Then again, those who know him would admit that D'Arcy the human being has always attempted to steer clear of convention; or, at the very least, he has strived not to be defined or limited by it.

His explosion on to the professional scene was entirely unconventional, too, with the now fabled invitation from Warren Gatland, politely declined, to the then Clongowes student to tour South Africa.

He was already a schools star by then, lighting up the 1998 winning campaign before his senior debut for Ireland as a substitute against Romania in the 1999 World Cup.

Perhaps it all seemed to come easy for him, for D'Arcy would not play for his country for another three years; his championship debut would not arrive until the 2004 Six Nations.

For a player often seen by the wider sporting public as the apprentice to the sorcery of the majestic O'Driscoll, the 2004 campaign, producing Ireland's first Triple Crown in 19 years, would establish him as a star in his own right as he began the campaign at outside-centre due to O'Driscoll's injury.

His brace of tries in the final leg against Scotland - he would score seven in his 82 Tests - concluded a sparkling debut in the tournament that would ultimately earn him the accolade of its player of the season.

A legendary midfield partnership was born; they would feature 55 times together, a world record, and countless more with Leinster as they forged a decade-long duopoly at the centre of unprecedented Irish achievement.

D'Arcy's conversion from an attacking full-back - Tony Ward rates him the best ever in the position at schools level - almost occurred by accident; having been dropped by Matt Williams at Leinster, too, during the subsequent ill-fated provincial reign of Gary Ella, the new boss converted the player when D'Arcy had been omitted from the 2003 World Cup.

When Eddie O'Sullivan left him out of that World Cup, D'Arcy had returned home to cry on his mother's shoulder but this latest brutal, sharp shock would prove a turning point.

A player who would admit to being a problem child was belatedly able to centre himself in more ways than one.

D'Arcy's renewal and reinvention would see him called up to the unwieldy and badly managed 2005 Lions' 'blackwash' tour to New Zealand, where he became a victim of one of that summer's series of pernicious 'spin' stories.

Ahead of the third Test, coach Clive Woodward revealed that D'Arcy had informed him he was too tired to play despite being selected.

The insinuation gathered legs during that horrendous touring experience and, when he was called up four years later as an injury replacement, was resurrected by former Lion Fran Cotton.

"It shows a weakness," thundered the former England prop. "I don't care if he was tired or didn't think he was up to it. People dream of playing for the Lions in a Test match and he turned it down."

D'Arcy finally, and reluctantly, addressed the most egregious charge that could be laid at a professional team player: "I have never in my life pulled out of a game of rugby - and I have never asked to," he insisted.

All the while, as Ireland's much-hyped "golden generation" were emerging as a consistent force on the international stage, Leinster were mired in mediocrity.

For all Ella's timely alchemy with the then wayward D'Arcy, Leinster were never regarded as viable European contenders.

That all changed with the arrival of the unknown, hard-nosed Aussie Michael Cheika in late 2005 and he would inform a radical culture change that would sweep all before him, including the still maturing D'Arcy.

Leinster had struggled to shake off the tag of being 'bottlers' under pressure; a player who wore boots emblazoned with the words 'south' and 'side' upon them hardly repelled the charge.

Cheika once upbraided him for turning up to a press conference wearing flip-flops, a stud in his ear and a garish day-glo T-shirt; by the time Cheika left, the team were kings of Europe and they would establish a dynasty with D'Arcy as its beating heart.

A broken arm in 2008 almost ended his career but he returned stronger than ever.

At just 90kg, he still generated enormous strength in the tackle, always making yards and his defence was unrivalled, from fearsome chop-tackling through to less subtle but vitally important defensive reads.

Like O'Driscoll, he tailored his game with advancing years and trends even if, naturally, O'Driscoll's genius always burned brighter.

Perhaps D'Arcy's finest moment was defined in a tackle of Wesley Fofana that prevented a last-minute try in the epic 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont.

"Total trust is what I need," said O'Driscoll. "And that's what I have in Darce."

If indeed D'Arcy was an unsung hero, it was because he never allowed himself to sing his own praises. Thankfully, thousands of supporters have been able to do that for him.

And, who knows, there may be one more verse to come.

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