Gordon D’Arcy: My cautionary tale of chasing World Cup glory

In 2015, focused on getting picked for Ireland, I broke the cardinal rule: Do Your Job

Memory lane and a cautionary tale rolled into one. After the November series in 2014 I decided to put all my efforts into making the World Cup squad.

After 10 years of process-driven preparation, the tournament would be my swansong. I’d ride into the sunset having helped Ireland go where we’d never been before.

Pressure prompted a change in attitude. I was the starting Ireland 12 (glossing over the looming reality that a new centre pairing, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne, had clicked against the Springboks).

By the end of the Christmas/New Year's round of interpros I'd lost my place in the Leinster team so, come the Six Nations, I was in Zebre rather than Rome, Parc y Scarlets rather than the Millennium stadium.

The problem, in hindsight, was my mentality – getting picked for Ireland at all costs – coupled with muscle fibres that, all of a sudden, no longer twitched at the speed required to survive in professional rugby.

Playing injured wasn’t the smartest move down in Castres the previous October. But you always front up if able. You risk the roll of the dice. My calf was tight going over but that’s the job. Leinster didn’t have another clear choice at 13 as Ben Te’o was injured and Brian O’Driscoll had retired. I played well, suffered a tiny tear and had to sit out the first week of Irish camp when we all saw Robbie and Jared dovetail in Carton House.

That had me scrambling. You miss every shot you don’t take so I unloaded the gun. Give back those moments and I’d take aim.

Not many people noticed the changing of the guard until the Munster and Ulster games over the holidays. Henshaw and Payne had to be looked at, so no panic there, but my performance against Australia would have set an alarm off in Joe Schmidt's brain.

Missed tackle

There was a bad missed tackle on Bernard Foley. I had him lined up until he glided past. It almost cost us the win.

Deep down, 34-year-old me knew what was happening. Keep going. Get yourself ready to prove everyone wrong, again. I overplayed, tried too hard.

Mattie O'Connor noticed. The coach usually clicks when a player is not tuned into the small moments. I was replaced at outside centre by Zane Kirchner during the Ospreys defeat in December. Injured. No worries.

Missed the Harlequins game as Luke Fitzgerald and Ian Madigan filled the centre. Again, I got this, none of those players have made a career in my position.

Picked for Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day. Mattie had a quiet word on the journey down.

“All good Darce?”

(Giant elephant wanders between us: “worldcupworldcupworldcup.”)

“Yep, 100 per cent, Mattie, good to go.”

We lost 28-13. Most of the senior internationals were stood down so I could hide amidst a number of poor performances.

But I was trading off reputation not form. Instead of doing what had kept me in the jersey for the previous 12 months – Do Your Job – I was seeking the angle to tear up 40 metres of turf or inspect enough rucks until the chance came for a poach.

I knew something wasn’t right. I changed up my approach because the usual impact I had on games was evaporating.

Ulster in the RDS on January 3rd proved the beginning of the end.

Mattie: “I need you to perform in this game.”

No clearer a message can be sent to a player who is about to be dropped.

“Yep, 100 per cent, Mattie, good to go.”

Shut down

Twice I shot out of the line to shut down the runner. First time the man shrugged me off for an obvious missed tackle. Second time Paddy Jackson popped Tommy Bowe through the gap I left in behind.

The game I used to love was happening in slow motion (and not in a good way). Ten months before a tournament I was trying to get selected for.

That will always lead to rash decisions.

This was also when I had to acknowledge my body was failing. This happens to every athlete. Usually around their mid-30s. You just can’t keep going like you did aged 30 and below.

You are papering over the cracks. It becomes about reading the game, seeing where your pace and reaction time might be exposed, so you cut corners, but do it as cleverly or slyly as possible.

Rory Best will be 37 in Japan but I think the Ireland captain will time it perfectly

In rugby this gets exposed very quickly because explosiveness is so vital. You lose that fairly early on. Certain positions can survive longer than others. Hooker, a powerful or very tall lock, a scrummaging prop or kicking outhalf, but the rest of us will be sussed and targeted.

About 29 of Ireland’s 31-man World Cup squad can be picked today with accuracy, but that won’t be anywhere near the group that travels, for two reasons: injury and form.

A few established heads will disappear. There’s plenty of rugby coming for people to play themselves in and out of the travelling party.

Rory Best will be 37 in Japan but I think the Ireland captain will time it perfectly. He remains important for Ulster, as proved when coming off the bench last weekend. Rory's never been an overly dynamic player, but look at his contribution for the Peter O'Mahony turnovers against New Zealand. Look at his lineout accuracy. I see plenty of value. Especially as part of the leadership trio with Sexton and O'Mahony.

Joe knows who he wants to bring, but there’s an alternative plan that he fully expects to use. He’s a very loyal coach. Do the job he puts before you and he’ll keep providing opportunity.

Let’s take my old position: centre.

Pecking order

The pecking order is unclear because Schmidt's never had to choose between Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw as Robbie has been injured or they've played together because Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell were unavailable.

Farrell hit the ground running against Edinburgh on the weekend so don’t be surprised to see him feature in the Six Nations. Schmidt won’t dilute the Ireland team but he knows the value of giving players on form opportunity as it keeps pressure on the incumbent.

That system is already in place.

Next summer a player does not want to be living off former glories

Players like Farrell do need a clear run of fitness and form. The 2014/15 season needed to fall perfectly for me. It didn’t. For the rest of the campaign Mattie settled on Madigan at 12 with Ben Te’o playing outside centre, all the way to Marseilles when we lost the Champions Cup semi-final to Toulon. I hung in there, coming off the bench, but I needed a mini-miracle in the August warm-up matches.

Everyone who faced Wales in Cardiff performed well; the Scotland game in Dublin was a different sort of day. The decision was made. I finished up at Donnybrook in a Leinster pre-season game.

Next summer a player does not want to be living off former glories. He wants to make that 31-man cut extremely difficult for Schmidt, Simon Easterby, Richie Murphy and Andy Farrell to agree upon.

Right now, player management is fascinating to watch, as the majority of Leinster players who featured against the All Blacks have been under wraps until they face Bath this Saturday. It’s calculated selection. It shows huge trust within the group – no contact until this week, presumably, refreshes the body and mind.

Wealth of emotions

Beating the All Blacks was a massive achievement. There’s a wealth of emotions that needed processing. When you scale that mountain, with such meticulous preparation, it’s about coming down slowly for Champions Cup.

No rugby in a blue jersey since October, but Sexton and company must deliver in a potentially win-or-bust away European game.

That’s putting real faith in the system.

The players know what they need to do in the coming months. Don't overthink it. I doubt anyone will fall into my trap. Long gone are the 2009 days when Rob Kearney bravely stood in front of the Munster players asking them to care about the green jersey as they do the red.

It’s ingrained these days that Ireland and the provinces are mutually aligned. The system is moving in one direction. Ireland gains from Leinster winning in The Rec, from Munster taking care of Castres home and away, from Ulster showing well against the Scarlets and Connacht beating Perpignan without Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion, because such achievements will continually build depth. And that’s what it’s all about.

The calf hardly troubles me anymore, but it’s a reminder to never break the cardinal rule: focus on the job in hand.