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Gordon D’Arcy: Fans would benefit from a peek behind the iron curtain

Behind the scenes access is important as it helps create and keep a new fan base

I should be writing about the Scotland game. I really should. There are plenty of angles to dive into and examine. An attack shape is developing. Caelan Doris performed minor miracles in the collision zone. The lineout is healing.

But I also see an organisation shrouded in needless secrecy which can be interpreted as contempt for outsiders (also known as supporters).

Twelve months on from the World Cup, with a new generation of Irish players suffering similar issues, surely somebody inside the IRFU saw the value of letting the public know how “performance anxiety” was being tackled.

I battled with this my entire career. Even at the ripe age of 35, you are fraught with worry about your body holding up. The hang-in-there mentality can become as stressful as the initial exposure to test match rugby.


The Ireland camp has developed a tradition of needless secrecy ever since Paul O'Connell asked if we had 'put the fear of God' in anyone before running out at Croke Park

Questions about such concerns resurfaced after the second half performance against Georgia. Last week Ireland head coach Andy Farrell was asked repeatedly what was being done behind the scenes to manage anxiety before uttering two magic words: Gary Keegan.

Maybe Keegan likes to maintain a low profile. The news of his performance coaching tends to leak out in the aftermath of a Dublin or Tipperary All-Ireland, or Leinster's Champions Cup success.

Fine, but it marks a missed opportunity to own a news cycle by putting out the information that Keegan and Mick Kearney had been added to the backroom staff.

Mick has been a great servant to Irish rugby, working as team manager under Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt. He reinvented the role by becoming an important link between the players and coaches. Never underestimate the power of spending time with somebody who you respect, who listens to what you have on your mind.

This has been happening in Ireland camp throughout 2020. But the simple transfer of information is blocked until the head coach is faced by relentless questions on a topic that could so easily have been proactively conveyed.

Look at the French and English YouTube channels. Without giving up any trade secrets the public get to see their training sessions in full flow, rousing pre match speeches, coaches' meetings and dressing room footage that showed Gaël Fickou drilling home the defensive messages of Shaun Edwards.

Overall, you get a sense of a young squad building towards their home World Cup in 2023. It is as entertaining as it is ominous.

The Ireland camp has developed a tradition of needless secrecy ever since Paul O'Connell asked if we had "put the fear of God" in anyone before running out at Croke Park in 2007. The sponsor's documentary from the tour of South Africa in 2016 should have been a foothold into this new media stream. Sadly, it was not.

The professional rugby product needs selling more than ever before. Take the fiasco over the Canterbury jersey launch excluding women as a prime example of what not to do.

Flick over to England Rugby TV and watch Eddie Jones deferring to Maro Itoje when it comes to coaching players about their movement after the tackle.

Johnny Sexton spoke recently about the excellent work being done behind the scenes while expressing an annoyance with the media for not being "aligned" but distrust of the media or curtailing the flow of information is equally frustrating. It cuts both ways.

Victory over Scotland is encouraging, it really is, but imagine a mini-documentary of Andy Farrell's best sound bites - heavily edited no doubt (I bet Eddie Jones and Fabien Galthie examine every frame of content before release) - or Mike Catt barking orders as he shapes the attack or the light declining as Simon Easterby, Ronán Kelleher, James Ryan and the lifters work tirelessly to build a new lineout.

Behind the scenes access is important in professional sport. It helps to create and then keep a new fan base. I believe that the IRFU have the resources and personnel to do this.

Keegan's appointment - several months ago and, presumably, on a consultancy basis - is a fantastic addition to Farrell's backroom. Look what he did with the Irish boxers in Beijing; Paddy Barnes and the late Darren Sutherland came home with bronze medals while Kenny Egan won silver.

His influence has contributed to multiple successes in Irish sport. The IRFU formed an official relationship with him in 2016. He is still on the National Professional Games Board, which is effectively the politburo that oversees the work being done by high performance director David Nucifora.

Maybe the PGB should have a look at the overall communications and media strategy while they are at it because everything is connected.

The Irish management have shown bravery to attempt a logical shift to follow the Joe Schmidt philosophy: “If you have to think, it’s already too late.”

This demanded an unreal amount of memorisation that was extremely stressful. I remember being overwhelmed sometimes in camp because of the amount of detail that needed to be learned before training.

I read about Eric O’Sullivan spending most of his spare time in his hotel room studying, so that first Ireland cap went smoothly (it helps that Eric can hold up a scrum).

Good. The Ireland squad should be a strenuous environment - as Don Draper said: "That's what the money is for!" - but there appears to be more leeway under Farrell, or to put it another way, he is asking players to shoulder more of the responsibility.

Schmidt’s methodology defined a decade of rugby. He sought perfect fundamentals and those who got closest played the games. Players tried to win every moment, knowing that he watched and saw everything. This sounds almost too much to handle but that is elite sport. There were 15, 20 power-plays you had to know along with every other player’s precise positioning.

When players unaccustomed to the environment complained about the stress, a question came back: ‘Do you want to win tournaments or do you want to be comfortable?’

As opposed to learn, execute, repeat. Now the players must learn, think, execute. Arguably that is tougher task. It certainly requires a collective adjustment.

The stress is very real but the grind can be enjoyable. I loved summer months on the back pitch in UCD knowing I was going to out-work bigger more talented opponents when the season started.

The greatest enemy throughout my career was never the opposition. It was silencing the voice in my head. Shutting ‘me’ up was the main pleasure I derived from it all. And, of course, those few minutes on the pitch after we won a trophy. The rest is pain reduction, sleep deprivation and managing your body while trying to be a decent husband and father.

That is why Enda McNulty was needed in the past and that is why Gary Keegan is needed now. ‘Enjoy The Pain’ could be the title of a very watchable documentary on IRFU TV.


The wisdom gained by Irish rugby in 2020 under Andy Farrell and, just as importantly, by evolving provincial squads should be visible against the French and English clubs.

Eight ferocious battles are coming over the next two weekends. Brace for impact.

Farrell appears to be putting serious weight on these matches before naming his next national squad. The provinces will learn some tough lessons (at least Ulster without Iain Henderson face Toulouse in Belfast on Friday night).

All this promise of a new wave of Irish players - from Ben Healy and Thomas Ahern in Munster to Harry Byrne and Ryan Baird in Leinster - needs to be seen on the European club scene to be believed.

Presuming the provincial coaches stay true to their selection policy of recent months, we are about to experience the future. We know that James Ryan and Caelan Doris will lead the way for years to come but they need a solid officer core to have any chance of bringing Ireland back to the “top table” that Johnny Sexton speaks about.

There is a particular challenge for returning senior internationals to their provinces this week. Their respective groups have learned how to lead in their absence. I've been that player and the overwhelming urge can be to talk for the sake of it, but the most valuable attributes Peter O'Mahony and Sexton can bring this week are actions. Let the Gavin Coombes and Rhys Ruddocks run the show.

That is how the provinces can hit the ground running in the Champions Cup because the English and French clubs have had a far better preparation.

Munster need to keep playing ball in hand rugby. To regress now would be such a pity and damaging to their overall progression. Conor Murray can be himself against Harlequins on Sunday but Craig Casey's voice should be heard at some stage. And keep Ben Healy in the 10 jersey.

There is no harm in an established international not being selected because he has fallen between the two stools of missing out on prolonged minutes for Ireland while not playing for his province. That will only drive internal competition.