No regrets for D'Arcy at staying a true blue
MAYBE it's his increasingly impressive beard, but the Gordon D'Arcy who presented himself at Leinster's media briefing yesterday came across as a particularly sage-like figure.
Much has passed before the Wexford native's eyes since he was whisked from Clongowes into the Ireland set-up as a teenager back in the late 1990s; he has watched professionalism develop, rugby move from the backwaters of Irish sport to the main event and Leinster become a European powerhouse.
It is incredible to think that this is D'Arcy's 16th senior season in blue; he is closing in on John Hayes' second spot on the all-time Heineken Cup appearances list, with Sunday's visit to Castres likely to be his 96th game in Europe's top competition.
During that time he has negotiated plenty of contracts, and the one he is about to sign in the next week could be his last as a player.
From the outset he knew he wanted to finish his career a one-club man.
However, as he watches his teammates Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip ponder their future and Keith Earls and Paul O'Connell do the same at Munster, he is well-placed to speak about the process they are going through.
Contract negotiations are a personal thing, but the speculation has been seized upon by the Leinster dressing- room as something to poke fun at the back-row duo who are attracting plenty of interest from Toulon.
D'Arcy never really wanted to leave his home province, but all professionals dip their toe in the water to see what's going on, and the centre is no different.
"The one and only time I ever dealt with a French club, the Union made an offer in the space of about three days and that was it," D'Arcy recalled of his own dalliance with the Top 14, but he knows the market has changed -- now, the IRFU's finances mean outbidding the big spenders from France is not an option.
It is a challenging time for players who have much on their mind as they weigh up the prospect of a move to a new country, the logistical challenge that that entails and the life-changing nature of it all while trying to remain focused on the job in hand.
"One year, it went on longer than I'd have liked and it does wreck your head for six and a half days of the week, but that morning when you wake up, you just go 'I need to play well to argue my case' and that's the only way you can argue your case," he said.
"You can say all you want in the press, you can say all you want behind closed doors, but you are judged on your games."
The decision is not an easy one to make, D'Arcy admits, even if his own experiences were relatively straightforward. "You are going to have an innate sense of whether you want to stay or whether you want to go," he said.
"Something I've learned is how you are valued changes. You can be valued at one level one month and, then, three bad games and your value goes down.
"Your perception, Leinster's perception and the IRFU's perception... to get all of those three perceptions the same is very hard and that's what contract negotiations are all about.
"There is more to sport than money; the French and English teams play more games, it is more physical and your career is going to be shorter there, but there is less money in Ireland.
"All of these things need to be made up; if you leave Ireland you are not necessarily going to win anything either. You are in a winning environment here: Leinster, Munster, Ulster... and Connacht now are definitely going to be a team that is bringing through younger guys and are going to get stronger.
"I can only speak personally, but it always has been an easy decision for me because I loved playing with Leinster and with perception, how I valued myself and Leinster and the IRFU valued me has always been reasonably close and that's why there has never really been a problem with it."
Perhaps, it's D'Arcy's business interests that have made him a sort of Zen-like figure in Leinster's dressing-room; after all, the combination of a trendy city centre bar and the pilates studio he recently opened up with his wife Aoife Cogan would appear to be the perfect blend for relaxation.
More likely, however, is that the work he has done with sports psychologist Enda McNulty has put him at ease, along with the realisation that the end is near.
"You go through phases in rugby and you get to that stage towards the end where you count on probably one finger how many years you are going to play for," he said with a smile.
"You want to finish with a bang, finish with enjoying it, the stresses are gone in rugby for me, I finally understand the game and I'm nearly finished.
"I just love playing the game. Coming into training, it is work and we work hard -- we have an unbelievable work ethic here but it is fun, I really enjoy where Leinster is now. I've been proud to be a part of it here to help create that culture. but even more than that I am enjoying this culture.
"It doesn't matter who you are, if you are at the top or at the bottom, everyone is treated the same and that's such a great place to be because I have been in squads where that's not always the case. Being a part of that is great, love it, I'd do it until I was 40 if I could."
His current coach Matt O'Connor has been impressed with what he has seen, while his former supremo Joe Schmidt thought enough of him to start him against the All Blacks, with near spectacular results.
So, despite his 34th birthday fast approaching, D'Arcy wants to go on and his province and country are ready to back him.
"I think he's been in great form this year," O'Connor said.
"The experience is important. You can't replace that. It's a huge part of what has made Leinster successful over the last five years, these big-name players who have done it over a period of time. There's a lot of talent in the academy, and in the younger kids in the squad, but you can't replicate 50, 60, 70 Tests overnight."
D'Arcy will continue, but his old comrades are dropping off one by one. He'll be hoping the younger carriers of the flame hold on for another couple of years, so that bang he's hoping to go out on is as noisy as possible.