Still meeting the highest standards
Fifteen years playing for his province, the centre remains hungry for success, writes GERRY THORNLEY
The Wexford boy, educated in Clongowes in Kildare and a Lansdowne club man, a true son of the province, has already become Leinster’s most capped player of all time and tomorrow Gordon D’Arcy eclipses Shane Horgan again for the most Heineken Cup appearances. A legend in his own playing career, albeit about the most modest legend you’d ever meet.
This is his 15th season, and he ain’t finished yet. When he was 28, he reckoned if he made it to 31 that would be a bonus. He’ll be 33 on his next birthday and the desire to keep going is undimmed, although it has not been what he calls a continuous upward slant.
There were the carefree younger days, the more conservative, mid-career supposed peak years and the latter years, when he’s been intent on enjoying every moment he can.
“In all of that you might hit indifferent form and you might hate rugby for six months and think ‘I’m going to play for another year and then give up’. But then you come back and have a pre-season and it all starts again. Or you meet a new coach or a player.”
Liam Toland was an early guiding light, Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt have both been very good for him, and Brad Thorn clearly left an indelible mark. “Thorny is a bit of a phenomenon within the modern game. You see his level of professionalism at 37 and you give yourself a little kick in the arse. ‘I could be better at this, I could be better at the job I thought I was good at.’”
D’Arcy says he has probably become more and more a Leinster man as the years have gone on. With his native county steeped in hurling and football, he’d meet friends from arch rivals Kilkenny and all they see is a Leinster player. “It opens your eyes a little bit so in a lot of respects it does make you very proud.”
He’s come a long way since the 18-year-old who first pitched up at a Leinster pre-season training camp in Loughborough in the late summer of 1998, but D’Arcy maintains with some justification: “I’m essentially the same person. I still try and smile a lot, I still love rugby and I’m still very passionate for the game.
“Obviously I’m a little bit wiser, a little bit sharper, a little bit smarter, but I still have the same feeling for the game. I still love training. I still love the kind of craic you have with the lads. . . ”
D’Arcy loves the way Joe Schmidt has introduced a new custom at Leinster whereby everybody shakes hands at the start of the working day. It breaks down the barriers which he first sampled in the summer of ’98.
Although a little in awe of Conor O’Shea, as a fellow full-back, D’Arcy candidly admits he hadn’t a clue who most of the players were. “When I was in boarding school, we didn’t have TV or the internet, and if you weren’t the first guy up in the morning you didn’t get to read the papers.”
Mike Ruddock was his first of six Leinster head coaches.
“Mike is a fantastic coach but I think he had his work cut out for him because there were part-time players. We trained in the evening, only the internationals, and the leadership structure kind of disintegrated when Chris Pim and all those guys retired.”
While in Australia on holidays in ’99 he went to the Ireland game in Sydney and met Matt Williams, who was a little incredulous when D’Arcy told him he was a professional rugby player. D’Arcy was, he admits, “very pudgy” at the time. “And lo and behold a couple of months later he arrives over and swans in.”
Williams administered some ‘tough love’ to him. “He really did drive home professionalism,” says D’Arcy. “Well, a lot of it fell on deaf ears. Change is never easy. Mattie drove the changes and we got good success from it, but the other thing you can’t build overnight is a squad.”
The Williams’ era ended with the bitter disappointment of a semi-final defeat to Perpignan at Lansdowne Road. D’Arcy regrets that influential figures such as Shane Byrne, Reggie Corrigan, Victor Costello and Denis Hickie never won a winner’s medal. “But then a lot of that disappointment is what’s driving today.”
Gary Ella and Declan Kidney passed through for a year each, although in January ’04, at the behest of Willie Anderson, Ella moved D’Arcy from wing to outside centre after Brian O’Driscoll was injured, which would also reinvent his international career.
At outside centre then, and again last week and tomorrow, he has been mostly at inside centre in between; his wondrous footwork and leg pumping enabling him to continually punch above his weight.
“At 12 you get the ball and make a decision, because if you second guess yourself you’re going to get smashed. At 13 you get the ball, you can have a look, then make your decision . . . and the other main differences is that at 12 you get the ball and there’s four lads in front of you but they’re a metre away. At 13 they are about two and a half metres away. So it’s all about time and space.”
D’Arcy’s recollection of Ella differs from that of a lot of the players at that time. “I think Gary had good ideas for the game. I don’t think he was enough of a dictator and Leinster didn’t need a softly softly approach at the time.”
Cue Michael Cheika. There would still be more pain, notably the painful semi-final defeat to Munster in ’06, running out in their own back yard to a stadium three-quarters red.
“They absolutely beat us up and down that field. But the good always tastes so much better when you’ve had a bit of pain.”
Leinster reached that semi-final with a stunning 41-35 win away to Toulouse. They earned the semi-final rematch with Munster two years later by dint of a 6-5 win at Harlequins.
Laughing and joking
D’Arcy recalls a return coach journey from a 19-18 defeat away to Connacht the preceding October. “Cheiks absolutely blew it. ‘I don’t care that we lost. I care how you feel now,’ because lads were laughing and joking on the bus . . . There was a real kind of low after that for a couple of days.”
There was also little or no celebrating the semi-final win over Munster. “It would have meant nothing if we didn’t win the final. I can’t really describe how I felt after we won that match (against Leicester in Murrayfield). But I remember I looked across at Shane Horgan and thought, whatever he feels that’s how I feel.”
The last two wins were, he says, just as sweet, and the sweetest moment of all was when Leo Cullen asked D’Arcy to accept the trophy with Horgan after the win over Northampton two years ago.
It took time. It took six coaches. Most of all D’Arcy reckons, it took some world-class signings. It also took moving from portakabins in Old Belvedere to Riverview and now UCD. In his time Leinster have morphed from underachievers to serial winners. “It’s just like being hungry and then eating, and you want more. You become greedy.”
He ain’t sated yet.