Billy Dardis now cracking the Sevens code
Leg go by Leinster, the Ireland Sevens team offered a new lease of life for Dardis
“This is a massive year for everyone. There is a core group of us where this is everything to us. If we don’t get into the World Series then what do you do? Go into a 9-5 job?”
Last March Leinster team manager Guy Easterby told Billy Dardis that there wouldn’t be a contract for him the following season. The province had signed James Lowe and the proliferation of back three players in the academy and senior playing squads meant that not all could continue to be accommodated; he was collateral damage in the shuffling of resources.
Dardis, just a couple of months past his 22nd birthday and in his first year out of the academy on a development contract, experienced the brutal side of professional sport. It came as a shock at the time. Hindsight inspired some self-recrimination as he upbraided himself for his naivety.
He could have seen it coming but immersed in the cocoon of national representative privilege at underage levels it desensitised him to outside presages. There is mitigation. Dardis was an outstanding schoolboy player, first with Newbridge College and then for the senior cycle with Terenure College.
He was an eye-catching fullback, his footwork, acceleration, vision, and distribution high grade qualities that saw him progress through several Leinster schoolboy squads, graduating from the sub academy to the provincial academy; along the way he spent two years on the Ireland Under-20s. The pathway to a senior Leinster contract that once seemed assured was abruptly rendered impassable.
He didn’t tell his parents, Colm and Barbara, for a couple of weeks, couldn’t. It was him not them that required time to recalibrate his mindset. Dardis is disarmingly and refreshingly candid in recalling those days. “I got told last March (by Guy Easterby), ‘look we are signing James Lowe and there is not going to be a contract for you.’ I was shocked. I kind of thought I played well in a few ‘A’ games or I thought I did and believed that I might have an opportunity here (at Leinster).
“I didn’t tell anyone for two or three weeks, didn’t know what to think. I eventually got around to saying it to my parents. They’d ask me from time to time if I’d heard about next year and my response went from, ‘it wasn’t looking likely,’ to finally admitting to them that ‘no I wasn’t getting a new contract.’
“Maybe I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t want it to happen and I had massive expectations. I spoke to Leo (Cullen, Leinster’s head coach) a few weeks later. I was in this bubble where I was training and never actually playing. Those four years, I played five or six ‘A’ games a year.
“It’s not that you are wasting your time but you need to play at the highest level to show what you can do. He (Cullen) was like ‘you just didn’t get many opportunities.’ It was obvious now looking back.”
There are few disagreeable experiences that don’t offer shards of wisdom for those who embrace hardship with an open mind. Dardis never eschewed the value of hard work or dedication when it came to playing rugby, a family value fostered by his parents and perhaps best exemplified by his mum, Barbara.
Rising at 6am to prepare breakfast, she used to drive Billy and his brothers Charlie and Sam from the family home in Naas to Terenure for school and then go back and collect them after rugby training in the evening for the return journey. She still does in Sam’s case, the youngest of the Dardis boys is in sixth year and he’s another blessed with stellar rugby genes as evidenced by three consecutive years on the Ireland Schools team.
Billy wasn’t impervious to a weakness or two as a player, the main issue being his defence. “Tackling would have become a big thing. Everyone was saying ‘you need to get more physical, your contact needs to be better.’ I tried to put on a load of weight, about (10) kilos in a year and a half; I got up to 93kgs and I am only five foot 10 inches.
“Then it was just like, ‘now you are too slow and not fit enough.’ I lost a load of weight. Everyone has their problems, their flaws.” One person who tried to cajole and help was the then Leinster academy manager and current Leinster backs’ coach Girvan Dempsey.
Dardis explained: “I would have spent a fair bit of time with him. My second year at (Ireland) 20s would have been the start of doing proper video analysis. He would be very critical (in a good way) in wanting everything to be perfect and making you better (as a player). In my second year at (Ireland) 20s I would have kicked the ball a lot and he would say ‘back yourself.’ I don’t know why I wasn’t as confident.
“Girvan would bring me up and show me clips of (New Zealand fullback) Damien McKenzie and he was saying that is the type of player we want you to be like. It was only halfway through last year that I felt I was beginning to play like that again, enjoying having the ball in my hands, having a go and if it didn’t work out, so be it.
“I went away from what attracted them in the first place to me, being fast, able to beat players and doing it all myself. I tried to become this player who was consistent, did the simple things really well. I wanted to become Leigh Halfpenny, who was really good, really effective and then when Damien McKenzie came along, I said, ‘no I want to be like him, because that’s who I was more like growing up.’”
Injuries are rarely opportune but a shoulder issue that kept Dardis sidelined from August 2016 to January 2017 in his first season out of the academy proved particularly ill-timed. As other Leinster players retired to a fanfare at the end of last season or took up contracts elsewhere, Dardis slipped out the side door.
He had spoken to his parents and didn’t want to pursue a career in the English Championship. “I didn’t want to go and play that kind of rugby for two years and for it to come to nothing. For some people it is a great opportunity and they get to use it as a stepping stone and maybe reinvent themselves.”
Fate intervened in the form of Anthony Eddy, the IRFU’s director of Women’s and Sevens rugby, that not just propelled him in the direction of the abbreviated form of the sport but also saw him become Ireland captain. Dardis takes up the story. “On finishing with Leinster Anthony Eddy approached me about playing with the Ireland Sevens.
“He told me that I had a real opportunity to push on here.” The Ireland Men’s Sevens team - the Women play on the elite World Series circuit - began playing European Sevens rugby Division C in 2015, winning that and the Division B title before last summer claiming the European Grand Prix series title.
That achievement brought with it qualification for the Repechage tournament at the Hong Kong Sevens next April (2018) - if they win they will join the Ireland Women’s Sevens team on the World circuit - and also play at the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco.
They got to mingle with the elite in Munich where they finished seventh and San Jose (ninth) and on Friday morning will be looking to start a campaign that they’ll hope will end with them winning the Dubai Invitational Sevens. In January they’ll go to South America for a couple of tournaments while they’ll also enjoy a series of training matches against France, Wales and England in the build-up to Hong Kong.
So was his introduction to Sevens a bit of a culture shock? “You would have been playing in the lower divisions for the first couple of years, so it wasn’t so much about fitness but rather skills. They just wanted us to learn how to play, so sessions weren’t that heavy.
“This year though we have a new Strength & Conditioning coach, Alan Temple Jones, who filled that role for the Blitz Bokke (South Africa’s national Sevens team and among the best in the world) for the last 10 years. That’s huge. He’s came in and said you have to lift the intensity a huge amount. It’s only in the last few weeks that the training intensity has gone up and players are coming out of training (knackered). It’s tough going.”
Dardis contends that the most bizarre thing he’s experienced is that all four teams playing against one another travel on the same bus to a ground. “You would be sitting beside the players that you are going out to play against in the next hour or two. The guy you want to try and whack is down the back of the bus. You listen to the same music. It’s a completely different atmosphere to XVs, where it so focused.”
Given that the Sevens squad is an intimate, 12 players the unexpressed maxim of ‘no dickheads’ is understandable. Dardis laughed: “We have a good group. Every captain says there are a great bunch of lads. Everyone gets on, is comfortable. When there are only 12 of you everyone has to mingle, know each other inside out.
“A lot of players were let go from clubs, (maybe) had a small little taste of professional or academy rugby and were then let go, or played 20s and were let go; basically didn’t push on. There are lads with chips on their shoulders who want to prove something but are positive about it.
“There’s a great work ethic. This is a massive year for everyone. There is a core group of us where this is everything to us. If we don’t get into the World Series then what do you do? Go into a 9-5 job? You have to come second in the European Grand Prix series of those not qualified for Hong Kong to qualify again. We want to get it in one. On our day we are good enough.”
Munich and San Jose were eye-openers for the squad as the Irish squad got an inkling of what it is like to play with the elite countries of the World Series. This weekend isn’t like that but it’d still be a great tournament to win.
Dardis still has a hankering to return to the 15-a-side game some day but that’ll be determined by events in the next six months. “Everyone wants to play for Ireland and sing the anthem in the Aviva. That’s the pinnacle for me. Maybe this is a stepping stone, maybe it’ll be what I do for the next few years, I don’t know.
“It comes down to April (in Hong Kong). If we win that then I am going to focus on Sevens for another year and then just deal with it year by year. There are a lot of people in the squad who are going ‘I am going to give this the best shot I can and then after that, I’ll deal with the outcome.’
“Two years ago it would have been we’re (Ireland) playing in Division B why do I want to go and play Sevens? It’s not a great level, whereas now we are going to these big tournaments, playing high quality rugby so it is becoming more attractive to lads.
“We do have our feelers out for people that we think can play Sevens. Would they fit into the system? Well you don’t really find that out until you put them in the system.”
There was talk at one stage of developing Dardis as a scrumhalf going forward in the XVs sibling, a role he now fulfils in Sevens. He admitted: “I suppose my philosophy when I came into Sevens was that if I showed these kind of skills then maybe people might look and say when he comes back to XVs (then we can look at him in a different role).
“Sam Cross, a Welsh player, was a big player for Wales on the Sevens circuit last year and he has just been named in the Wales XVs squad. He was taken into the Ospreys. So there are opportunities to go back to XVs and push on and be a different type of player based on the skills that you pick up playing Sevens. There are so many complementary skills and playing Sevens is not a cul-de-sac or a point from which there is no return despite some perceptions.”
His story represents a parable on modern rugby. Talent of which he’d oodles gets a player so far but timing and good fortune are essentials too, likewise a good attitude and open mind. Dardis has taken a road less travelled by and no matter how circuitous it could ultimately make all the difference.
Dubai 7s Invitational Fixtures - Pool C: Ireland v Germany (11:40am, Irish time)
Ireland v Old Georgians RFC (3:06pm, Irish time); Ireland v France Development (5.0pm, Irish time).