Sport Rugby

Saturday 17 August 2019

'It's only as time goes by I think, 'How did I get it so wrong''

Billy Dardis in action for Ireland sevens against Wales last July
Billy Dardis in action for Ireland sevens against Wales last July
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It was all going according to plan for Billy Dardis.

His move from Newbridge to Terenure College, to give himself the best possible chance of securing a place in the Leinster Academy, paid off before he was selected as the starting full-back for the Ireland U-20s.

Dardis had to pinch himself when two months after his Leaving Cert, he was selected on the wing for Leinster in a pre-season game that saw him come directly up against George North.

His reputation as one of the most exciting broken-field runners was rapidly growing and it seemed like it would only be a matter of time before he made his breakthrough with his home province.

After three years in the academy, Dardis had impressed enough to earn his first fully professional contract in 2016, until his dream began to fall apart.

Injuries hampered his progress and before he knew it, the season was over, he hadn't played a single league game and a contract was no longer on offer.

"It's embarrassing if anything," Dardis reflects, two years after turning his focus to sevens.

"You hear of lads coming out of school with the stereotypical big hype and then never get anywhere. I think now, 'Jesus, I am one of them.'

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"I came out of school and I remember being like, 'Lads, I am training with Brian O'Driscoll.' It was crazy. All I was thinking was, 'How have I found myself here?'

Waiting

"I never really just expected it to happen, but I think I was waiting for it to happen rather than making it happen. I always ask myself that: 'why didn't I actually go and do stuff?'

"I was telling people that I was waiting for things to click in this game and then I'll get noticed and shoot up - instead of actually going out and playing class."

There were offers to remain in the game but when the IRFU got their sevens programme up and running, Dardis felt it was a good fit.

The 24-year-old has captained his country for the last year and is doing so again this weekend in Hong Kong, where Ireland are attempting to qualify for the World Series.

Dardis feels he still has unfinished business in the larger code because looking back on his four years in Leinster, he has many regrets.

"It's funny, I still see myself as a 15s player. I'd be lying if I said I don't think about it.

"I still watch 15s games and I'm like, 'Jeez, there is no space on that pitch, where do you run to?'

"Obviously I would love to play professional rugby and get a shot at giving it a real go because in my head I am more than capable.

"It's two years since I have played a 15s game - an AIL game for UCD against Terenure in November of 2017.

"I would like to think there is unfinished business but we'll see. I feel like a failure looking at our (Ireland) U-20s back-line!"

Dardis was the full-back in a star-studded side that included Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery and Jacob Stockdale.

Watching the heights that trio have hit since 2015 is a stark reminder of what might have been for Dardis.

"I look back on it now and it's only as time goes by, I think, 'Jesus, how did I get it so wrong?'

"OK yeah, maybe a little of luck, a little bit of this and that but at the same time, why didn't someone tell me not to kick the ball as much? Just little things like that.

"I have to look at myself as well though. I was in there for four years and I didn't take advantage of it.

"I watched the U-20s recently and was just thinking, 'OK, this is your shot. If you go really well here, you can find yourself catapulted in senior squads.'

"Looking back at my U-20s days, I kicked the ball so much. I remember coming out of school and I didn't have a kicking game.

"So I spent a year or two working on it and I actually got quite good at it, but then it became what I was all about.

"If I look back at my U-20s games now, I'm like, 'Why did you kick it there? Have a bit of fun and run around.'

"I wanted to be more of consistent player and not make mistakes. I didn't want to make mistakes, so I would kick it to look better and not make a mistake.

"It's so cliched, but you should do what you are there for. You're good for that reason. Don't go out and change the way you play.

"I remember coming into the U-20s thinking, 'This is like professional rugby so you have to be professional about everything you do.'

"But you go into an U-20s game and if you are quick and have good feet, you can open it up.

"You see that in some players, they just can't back themselves. I didn't back myself back then, which is disappointing.

"I wish I could go back and just do it now. Maybe things could have gone differently, but hindsight is a wonderful thing."

There will always be a place in the game for exciting players like Dardis, yet he is aware that the longer he spends away from it the harder it will be to get back in, which begs the question: would he be satisfied if he never got a second chance to fulfil his dream?

"It's funny, when you put it that way, if I got to 35 and had only played sevens, I wouldn't be 100pc happy with how things went," Dardis admits.

"But at the same time, in my head, I want to win in Hong Kong and then it sets you up for the next two or three years. I can't see my path back to 15s for now.

"Last year when Girvan Dempsey moved to Bath... I would have been very close to Girv when I was in the academy, through Terenure and with the full-back connection, so I would have spent a lot of time with him.

"When he moved to Bath I sent him a message saying, 'If you are ever looking for a full-back, you know where I am.'

"I would be in contact with Ian Madigan and I'd always be like, 'Let me know if anything ever comes up.'

"And it would never be that I want to leave the sevens, it's more about my personal ambition.

"It is that thing again about never being satisfied if I never get another shot."

Ireland came up agonisingly short in Hong Kong last year when Japan scored a try with the last play of the game to knock them out at the semi-final stages.

This time around, they are quietly confident of righting the wrongs of last season.

"It's great to look back on the wins in London and San Francisco last year, but it actually means nothing if we fail in Hong Kong - it's the big one," Dardis adds.

"Last year, I remember saying beforehand, 'we're going there to win' whereas this year, the focus is on ourselves.

"We went over there and we were in a good spot, but I think we thought we were in a better position than we actually were. It was only after it, we realised we had lost sight of what we needed to do.

"Lads were afraid to make mistakes. We weren't too performance-focused, but we were more afraid to lose rather than going out there and performing."

Those words could so easily be Dardis talking about his own career to date.

Now, having learned plenty of tough lessons along the way, Dardis is more determined than ever not to make the same mistakes twice as he looks to get his grand plan back on track.

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