Thursday 19 July 2018

O'Driscoll and D'Arcy world's best, says Lagisquet

Peter Bills

MAYBE we underestimated Spike Milligan's credentials as a rugby analyst. "I'm Irish" the great man once said. "We think sideways." Well, what is wrong with that? Irish rugby's wondrous centre pairing of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll spend much time pondering the sideways angles past a defence.

MAYBE we underestimated Spike Milligan's credentials as a rugby analyst.

"I'm Irish" the great man once said. "We think sideways."

Well, what is wrong with that? Irish rugby's wondrous centre pairing of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll spend much time pondering the sideways angles past a defence.

And it's true, the great attackers of history have always done that. Look how that renowned Austrian wing, one A Hitler once side-stepped the entire Maginot Line. Now that must have been some run, all the way to the French frontier.

And talking of the French who arrive in Dublin this weekend for an historic day at Croke Park on Sunday, who better to offer the quintessential analysis of Ireland's supreme midfield players than a French international of great pedigree himself?

Patrice Lagisquet was an elegant wing of devastating pace, good enough to win 45 caps in a career spanning eight years from 1983 to 1991.

He played in an era where creativity was the pleasure of those with attacking minds. Space was at much less of a premium than in today's game, which explains why Lagisquet has an abiding respect for the best players of the modern vintage.

Today, Lagisquet is the coach of the reigning French Champions Biarritz Olympique. Under his tutelage, they have won three French Championships in five years. In that time, Biarritz have confronted Leinster on several occasions in the Heineken Cup. Thus, his credentials for assessing Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy are without question.

"For me, O'Driscoll and D'Arcy are the best centres in the world today. What they did against Australia last autumn was terrific. They excite me as players because they create things."

Both, of course, are superb demonstrators of their art. Both epitomise the modern centre in their willingness to compete for the loose ball, do their defensive duties and make the tackles.

Scrutiny

The days when teams could afford a player with a defensive deficiency are long gone; it is ruthlessly exposed by modern day video scrutiny. Thus, defence has become the pre-requisite requirement for a contemporary player, perhaps more so than attacking flair.

But the intensive focus on that part of the game has highlighted the need for players of paramount skills to emerge when the focus does change to attack. Ireland's centre duo are two in a class of very, very few.

O'Driscoll has always been the more renowned, the name guaranteed to glitter.

Appropriately, Lagisquet doffs his cap to Ireland's outstanding captain yet goes on to confess an admiration for D'Arcy, until now the lesser light in the partnership.

"Everybody speaks about O'Driscoll and every time he scores, that conversation is continued. Many people used to look only at him. But a player like D'Arcy is very important to the teams he represents.

"He is a player that can even create something in front of the defence on first phase ball, after a scrum or line-out. Then, after that, O'Driscoll can take a gap on second phase ball. His great quality is that he always knows where to go and how to take the right line at the right moment.

"But D'Arcy interests me very much. He makes steps, he is fast, he keeps the ball and he likes to play one against one. For him, it is not a problem to have two or even three defenders in front of him and he releases the ball very well."

D'Arcy reminds Lagisquet of his own centre/wing at Biarritz, the free scoring Philippe Bidabe. Frankly, he admits the Frenchman is not as complete a performer as the Irishman, not as clever but the same type of player. They are, in Lagisquet's judgement, fast enough to make a difference.

But it is as a pairing that the Irish duo represents a huge challenge in Lagisquet's mind. He knows, Biarritz have had to contend with them wearing Leinster colours in the Heineken Cup and if both sides survive their quarter-finals this year, they will meet again, in San Sebastian, in the semi-final in springtime.

"They are very interesting together, very dangerous. But the main problem for international teams they confront is that now Ronan O'Gara is playing a different way. He is now also a dangerous player."

But who matches the riches, the silky skills offered by D'Arcy and O'Driscoll? Damien Traille and Yannick Jauzion of France, perhaps? Lagisquet shakes his head.

Powerful

"Sometimes they are not as good in defence. They are powerful and strong but not very aggressive tacklers. D'Arcy and O'Driscoll are most aggressive in tackling and they can recover the ball.

"Players like Traille and Jauzion can be fantastic players but I don't know playing together. The best combination depends on who plays at No 10.

"Also, O'Driscoll kicks a lot and has good technique. So for me, D'Arcy and O'Driscoll are the best centres in the world at the moment."

As Lagisquet hints, more often the best combinations can be a balance of contrasts. That may be why he is reminded of Florian Fritz when he watches D'Arcy (strong, quick, aggressive, always trying to create something) and why he operates well alongside either Traille or Jauzion in the French midfield.

"Sometimes you need two players that are different, but know each other well.

"I remember D'Arcy as a full-back and wing and I think he only started to play centre when O'Driscoll was injured.

He played one match against us for Leinster at Biarritz in the Heineken Cup when he was exceptional.

"He did everything that day and Leinster almost won a match we thought we had won comfortably. He faced the Australian Jack Isaac in our side, and he was a very good centre. But D'Arcy twice beat him one-on-one and few players ever did that to Isaac. D'Arcy was incredible that day.

"But I remember when we prepared for that game with a video of Leinster, I warned the players that D'Arcy was more dangerous than O'Driscoll. He proved me right. Every time he has the ball in his hands he can be dangerous. Even when he is one-on-two."

Lagisquet won't be in Dublin on Sunday afternoon but you can be sure he will be close to his TV at home in the Pays Basque. Like a sommelier acknowledging a special vintage, Lagisquet admires the great skills of the Irishmen.

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