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Gordon D’Arcy: I knew if I’d made the Rugby World Cup squad long before the coach’s number flashed up

I can vividly recall that chat with Joe Schmidt in 2015, he tried to find the words to let me down gently

The head coach’s phone call may represent the sharp end of a guillotine, but most players are aware of their circumstances ahead of necks being placed on selection’s chopping block.

There are exceptions but for the majority the indicators are in plain sight, very few are blindsided. My career spanned five Rugby World Cups, three of which I went to as a player, missing out twice, in 2003 and 2015.

I knew whether I’d made it or not long before the coach’s phone number flashed up on the phone. The colour of the bib you were in training, the players you are running with, and the position in which you’re practising. No amount of self-denial can obscure those practicalities.

Eddie O’Sullivan was short, sharp and to the point in outlining why I wouldn’t be travelling to Australia in 2003, no frills, no couching the message in nice terminology. I can vividly recall that chat with Joe Schmidt in 2015. I was in the car travelling to the west of Ireland when he let me know that I hadn’t made the squad.


Where previously our rugby conversations would be more complex, fine tuning or challenging what I was doing to improve, we just talked as peers, almost friends. He tried to find the words to let me down gently.

There was a marginal, if undeniable, drop in my performance levels, visible to both of us; a yard less in a carry through contact, less impactful in defence, not backing myself for an outside break and instead cutting back inside. The one opponent everyone succumbs to eventually is Father Time.

The flip side is when selection is a formality, you’re fit, you’re at your peak or close enough to it, and having the desired impact in matches and everything is easier, not easy. There are few mechanical or technical thoughts, your game slips into gear on the opening whistle.

Cian Healy’s injury aside, Andy Farrell’s squad for the upcoming World Cup contained no surprises. The hard work in putting this squad together commenced in the early days of Farrell’s reign, when he set about putting his shape on a group of players previously moulded by Schmidt.

He blooded new, young faces, the bulk of whom make up the current squad. Their aptitude to excel in Test rugby was sharpened by the rigours of a five-match tour to New Zealand last summer and subsequently the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa, which added further depth in the form of Jamie Osborne, Calvin Nash, Ciaran Frawley, Tom Stewart, Cian Prendergast; Joe McCarthy and Jack Crowley were principal beneficiaries as they travel to France.

Farrell has been consistent and meritocratic in selection and outlook, acknowledging form and injuries along the way. Frawley and McCarthy were in New Zealand, but injuries denied them an opportunity at Leinster last season. Frawley’s absence saw Farrell bring Ross Byrne back into the fold to great effect.

Over the last 12 months Ireland’s head coach has invested a considerable amount of time in two players, Crowley and McCarthy, neither of whom were starting regularly for their province. There is a confidence or strength to backing players in this fashion.

That faith was vindicated in the way Crowley navigated his Test debut against Australia and McCarthy’s recent powerful cameo against England, which included manhandling Courtney Lawes. They had been set up to succeed, the final step was theirs to take, and they have both been able to grasp the opportunity.

Anecdotally it appears that Farrell has offered his backing to the wider group too, making them aware of what was required to break into or remain in, the World Cup squad. Circumstances dictated that not everyone got a chance in the warm-up matches, Osborne a case in point, but sometimes when you’re settled in certain positions there is little wriggle room.

In the World Cup warm-up matches no one really played themselves in or out of contention. Cian Prendergast might be considered the unluckiest to miss out. Jacob Stockdale’s prowess in attack, his ability to beat multiple defenders with no space, wasn’t matched by a couple of other areas in his game: small margins.

I believe Ireland are in a good place going into the World Cup. There are shades of 2015, where we had an in-form team, talented players, a strong coaching ticket and a favourable draw. If New Zealand had suffered Ireland’s injury carnage, they would not have won that tournament. Ireland lacked the strength in depth to cope when keynote players were invalided out.

This time, our form is red hot, there is momentum from a 13-match winning streak, the squad contains the world player of the year and a few more who’d be in the running to succeed Josh van der Flier. The only sticking point is the tough draw. I think that the World Cup winner will come from the two quarterfinals in which Pool B teams are involved.

There is a special bond between the Ireland coaching team and players without the traditional hierarchical structures. The environment appears enjoyable and fulfilling, predicated on mutual respect. The television pictures from the respective dressingrooms at halftime during the victory over England told a tale.

In the Irish one, small groups encircled coaches, deep in discussion, while across the corridor England players sat listening to the teacher at the top of the class.

Farrell sets the tone, you can see it in the way he celebrated Keith Earls try on his 100th cap, the way he drew attention to the human side of his son’s tackle controversy and in talking about Cian Healy’s injury. He champions a culture of looking at the squad as people first, players second and I would be confident that is mirrored by Paul O’Connell, Mike Catt, Simon Easterby and John Fogarty too.

There is a trust among this group which has been hard earned and I believe it will serve them well at the World Cup. I have an unfamiliar sense that Ireland are going to do something special in this tournament.

Despite the difficulty of the draw, Ireland can build towards the South Africa match that will decide the road ahead. The 14-day break to the Scotland game could be vital in a tight tournament where previously Ireland have suffered with injuries and a reliance on key players.

There’s no point in saying it’s going to be different this time but there is a justifiable excitement that this Ireland squad couldn’t be in better nick or a better place going into a World Cup.