Gordon D’Arcy: Downplaying pain is part of the game

Hindsight tells you it is foolish, but you do anything – injured or not – to get out there

Connacht’s Matt Healy always seeks to get on the ball and influence the game. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Matt Healy always seeks to get on the ball and influence the game. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

On Monday I had my second last invasive surgery. The last nitrous oxide experience – I hope – is when my hip gets cleaned in August.

The initial repair of my shoulder was done back in June 2014. That broke open the following December. My form dipped because of it, along with a calf strain and other reasons (old age), allowing Robbie and Jared establish themselves as the Ireland centre partnership.

I knew that going under the knife again would ruin any chance I had of making the World Cup squad.

That’s a regular choice faced by modern rugby players: postpone an operation and be at about 80 per cent, but get to keep playing. And all we ever want to do is play.

I heard Kieran McGeeney speaking recently about how, after tearing his cruciate ligament twice, he strengthened the quad muscles around it and played the rest of his career without it. My situation wasn’t as extreme but I believed an hour’s rehab every day would get me back playing. It was a better idea than surgery. Playing with a shoulder lacking 20 per cent strength was not ideal – it’s such an important body part for passing and tackling – but six months of rehabilitation in my mid-30s felt like a life sentence.

When the big games are looming a player will do whatever it takes to get out there. So I played on. In hindsight it was daft. But I felt like I had no choice. It’s a finite career so you find a way to get onto the pitch and survive. World Cups, contract negotiations, a Pro 12 semi-final – these events always trump actual logic. If I had been three years younger I would probably have got back into the squad relying purely on footwork and pace. Unfortunately those two former razor sharp weapons were waning as I turned 35. By the end I was making squads because of game knowledge and defensive reads.

So I needed to stay fit.

After what became my final cap for Ireland, against Scotland last August, I knew something wasn’t right.

Saved from ourselves

It was a calculated risk to avoid surgery. Rugby players rarely err on the side of caution or long-term health. They get out on that field by any means necessary. It’s why we have to be saved from ourselves sometimes.

This week, of all the weeks, Leo Cullen, Pat Lam and Les Kiss don’t want to hear about injured players. Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier are unable to tog out so it becomes about Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Next man up policy, nothing matters but winning. Not the tour to South Africa, nothing. Not to Leo or Jordi and Rhys for that matter. Leinster need to salvage this season by reaching, and then winning, the Pro 12 final.

This week the provincial coaches are unbeatable in the club versus country debate. They give way enough times during the season. Now, the days of guys going out with half a hamstring tear by strapping it above and below are gone. But there are plenty of players running below 100 per cent fitness. Usually a painkiller gets you through certain injuries that playing on doesn’t make any worse. It is going to be horrendously sore afterwards but you need to get on that field.

It is no decision at all, really. Sometimes it is better to play on these injuries as the body hardens up and after a few hits you realise it isn’t so bad. The adrenaline gets you through. You ice the area of inflammation and come Tuesday or Wednesday you are in a better state than the previous week. Your mind tells you so.

Second Captains

Older players know exactly what I’m talking about. For the last four, five years of my career the summer holidays changed dramatically. The young lads would be planning a trip to LA and Mexico while I’d just laugh before declining the invitation. Eight hours on a plane? My back would need the entire week to loosen up again. No way. I’d head down to Spain where a gym was in strolling distance of my comfy perch near the ocean. A yoga mat would also be close-by.

Keep ticking over

I knew not to turn off the engine as it might not start up again. My preseason became the start of the season, as the holiday became preseason. Anyone who has banked 10 years in contact sport will tell you that. Rest up mentally, sure, but keep ticking over.

Jamie Heaslip, who is having a smashing year, is serious when he goes on about the 1 per cent gain. Get to the 40 foot four times a week, do an oxygen chamber, do whatever it takes to get on to the pitch. That’s how you get to play rugby in May and June.

Every player I have ever known would do whatever it takes to run out at the RDS this Friday night or the Sportsground on Saturday. Whether that’s hiding injuries or getting by on 80 per cent.

The pressure is firmly on Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow this weekend. Not Connacht. They have wildly exceeded their own expectations but that no longer matters to them. Losing a semi-final in Galway, even to the defending champions, will feel like failure.

Connacht can, no, they must, remain true to the style of rugby that got them here. The other three teams might slip into cup mode, seeking to use the experience gained from winning semi-finals to their advantage.

Connacht can flip that on its head and play without suffocating pressure. Play as they always have done at home under Pat Lam.

The contrasting approach was obvious from kick-off of last Saturday’s Champions Cup final. Neither team went out to play any rugby. The first 10 minutes was all about tactical kicking. Yes, it as was raining but Alex Goode didn’t even consider the running option on gathering that early ball. He put it back into the corner. That act dictated the rules of engagement.

The fewest mistakes wins.

Continue to attack

Connacht should not be weighed down by that mentality. They must continue to attack from their own territory, kicking from the outside edge – as their wingers tend to do – and continue to vary their approach. But don’t change. If they abandon what’s got them here they won’t win. Stay true to their style and there can be no regrets.

Glasgow under Gregor Townsend will come with the win-by-one-point mindset. They will seek to squeeze the life out of the game and the crowd.

Leinster have been on the receiving end of this plenty of times. I remember we won that Heineken Cup quarter-final in Toulouse in 2006 because we played beautiful heads-up rugby devoid of fear. Nobody gave us a chance so it was an easy decision to play the way we love. We attacked them at every opportunity. One such opportunity resulted in the best try I have ever had a hand in.

Toulouse, trailing 21-26 with an hour played, had enough of their upstart visitors and orchestrated a massive overlap in our 22. It was a certain try until Cameron Jowitt broke from the line to almost intercept. Girvan Dempsey pounced on the loose ball. Felipe Contepomi saw where the space was and threw a long pass to Denis Hickie, who sprinted away from Fabien Pelous and over halfway. I ran a support line and did a little one-two pass before Denis held off Vincent Clerc to score in the corner.

Connacht always seek to play in a similar manner. I see a lot of similarities between Matt Healy this season and Denis Hickie back then. Denis always sought to get on the ball, influence the game off his wing. Same goes for Healy.

Connacht have an attitude Leinster players from that era would identify with. I’ve seen home-grown outhalves, Jack Carty and Shane O’Leary, being the first to clean out rucks. And they do it properly and effectively. Such sacrifice compels onfield leaders like Healy and Bundee Aki to step into first receiver. One observation I’d have is Robbie Henshaw hasn’t done that enough this season. Now, Henshaw’s influence on several vital Connacht tries, especially the offload for Aki’s down in Limerick to beat Munster, has been fantastic but to make the Pro 12 final they need him to be their best all-round player. That means switching from second to first receiver when the moment demands it. If Robbie is to remain at 12 – and that’s a live debate – for Ireland and Leinster next season he will need to do more of that when Johnny Sexton is under rubble.

Bundee Aki gets them over the gain line in the same manner we have seen Ma’a Nonu do for New Zealand and more recently Toulon, but it’s the constant willingness to mix first receivers that makes them so unpredictable.

Connacht do kick the ball but only when the risk-reward odds are stacked in their favour. Geordan Murphy was always a big fan of getting quick ball wide to him whenever Ireland won turnover ball in our 22. The premise being the defence has to be soft so it becomes a simple “kick or run” call – if the opposing 15 pushes up we would kick long, if he stays at home we had a numerical advantage. There is not a huge amount of science behind it. If the defence moves up hard you trust your collective skill-set to get ball into the winger’s hands. Problem is a malfunction leads to the three or seven points on offer almost certainly swinging the other way.

Connacht have been getting the ball into this area all season long.

Intense pressure

It’s about backing the handling ability of each player. They have clearly worked over and over again to ensure they can do this under intense pressure. Their wingers and fullback then chip the ball a lot into the space. See the try that beat Leinster.

Up front, men like Aly Muldowney have become crucial in ensuring decisions are not made while static. They either truck it up or go out the back. This requires an intelligent core of players. Connacht are a smart rugby team. They also add new moves each game to make it difficult to nail them down on video. The general strike moves revolve around Kieran Marmion carrying away from the breakdown while Aki runs a short line. But they constantly change this up.

There is a huge opportunity now to build on Connacht’s amazing progress. Especially through their academy structure. We can see this in enormous potential already evident from the rise of Denis Buckley, Eoin McKeon and Ultan Dillane. Connacht do not face the same level of competition from the GAA that we see in Leinster and Munster.

The next leap is to invest in the coaching of coaches. I was out with an underage squad recently and the coaches, who are all volunteers, asked me to show them how to show their players how to tackle. That concerned me. Such expertise should be coming from somewhere else.

But that’s a whole other column.

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