Thursday 22 March 2018

‘We’ve set the bar low – we’re expecting to play better and better’

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IRELAND's players find themselves in a strange sort of limbo this week.

The Wales game is dead and buried, ancient history as far as they are concerned, but they were unable to banish the memory against France last weekend. The Italy match is another nine days away, so that remains part of a faintly distant future.

They want to forget about Wales, that much is clear. Unfortunately it remains the only reference point for their Six Nations campaign so far, the only evidence that fans and media can consider when judging the team's current status.

Gordon D'Arcy doesn't see it like that. Asked if the abandonment of Saturday night's meeting with the French means the Welsh comeback lingers on, he scoffs, before replying: "That's a bit of a stupid question.

"I'm not being rude, but it has no impact. We're not going to be looking back on a game that has no impact on the rest of the tournament.

"It's always hard to get your head around a question like that; you do your media after the game, but two weeks after a game it might as well be eight months. It's not the reference point for the rest of the season -- the reference point is the next match. We're not going to compare the rest of the season to one match."

That's that then.

But it seems impossible to move on from a match that Ireland could have won, despite a lacklustre display. So, how can the team improve?

"You know the first game of the Six Nations is always going to be a starting point for the rest of the tournament," D'Arcy explains.


"You never want to dip below that performance, it is always going to be a little rusty, always going to be a little below par, because you haven't played together for an amount of months.

"We're no different to any other team. We've played that match, we've set the bar pretty low so we're expecting to play better and better in every game.

"I just think we need to be more consistent. We beat Australia in the World Cup, we beat England when they were going for a championship (Grand Slam) and then we lost to Wales in the first game of the Six Nations.

"We're as good as all of the top teams, we just need to be more consistent. We need to believe that we are a top-four team and we need to be doing that on a more consistent basis.

"We're pretty much focusing on every aspect of the game. Against Wales, every aspect of every play we did well in parts, but we're looking to move that from 60pc, or whatever percentage it was, we're looking to up that across the board.

"The attack plan that we had, when we executed it we did it well, but we didn't do it enough. When we have the ball, we want to get into an attacking pattern. That means the rucks have to be improved, the scrum, the line-out -- when we get ball it has to be good quality."

D'Arcy is not keen to go into detail about his personal form. He has come in for criticism in recent weeks and has been singled out as one of the players who needs to prove himself more than most in the coming games.

At 32, he has been the starting No 12 for more than eight years, but he says he has never felt secure about his place.

"There is always room for improvement, a bit like the team. I never take my place for granted," he says.

D'Arcy is coming towards the end of a glittering career, but at 5'10" and 14 and a half stone, he appears to be of a different era.

When the BBC flashed the Wales back-line's vital statistics before their win over Scotland, they read like they were a big pack from the 1990s.

But young players seem to be getting bigger, D'Arcy believes the sport is not as physical as it was three years ago due to a number of changes made by the IRB.

"I think it peaked on the Lions tour in 2009 in South Africa. It just seemed to be getting out of control and the IRB seemed to move the game away from the physical confrontation," he says.

"They wanted to change the entry to the ruck to try and take away the physicality in there, and defences were very dominant at that time. But now it has come around towards the other way -- the rucking team who goes forward gets the referee onside. They are the ones who dominate possession and dominate the key performance indicators in matches."

Starting next week, Ireland have four matches on the trot after the rescheduled match with France was slotted in between the home battles with Italy and Scotland.

D'Arcy is unsure as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but he has a sneaking suspicion that the cup rugby element of week-in, week-out games will suit Ireland.

A win over Italy would help to restore confidence, but the Leinster man has been impressed with the Azzurri so far, even if he believes Ireland can score against them if the correct pressure is applied.

"If we're injury-free it could be brilliant, if we pick up knocks then it might not be. So, there are pluses and minuses in it; it means we can build on performances week after week and that might suit us," he says.

"Italy have two matches under their belts, they'll be battle-hardened, they are a really good team and their new coach has brought in a new way of playing.

"You can see that. If they had had more ambition against France they could have led after 25 minutes. They are an incredibly physical team, so you have to respect that, but the one thing you do know is that if you can put pressure, pressure, pressure on them then you will score.

"Whether that is a penalty or, like France, attacking from deep after soaking up the pressure and hitting them on the counter, there are tries and points to be had against Italy."

Plenty of them will put memories of the defeat to Wales to bed, but until it happens that defeat will linger.

Irish Independent

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