Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland’s Six Nations could hinge on laying Cardiff ghosts to rest

An opening round win and anything will feel possible - defeat and questions will be asked

Wales celebrate a Hadleigh Parkes try against Ireland in 2019. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Wales celebrate a Hadleigh Parkes try against Ireland in 2019. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

This euphoric feeling cannot be replicated in later life. I start moving when Jerry Flannery cocks his elbows before finding Paulie’s out-stretched fingertips. I see the tiny gap I will disappear into. As Stringer releases the bullet I am flat out sprinting to where the ball will be, knowing that Thierry Dusautoir is too late to slam the door in my face.

None of this can happen without Fla’s perfect throw, John Hayes nailing the lift, O’Connell’s picturesque athleticism and String’s speed of light pass.

You momentarily enter another dimension. Open grass on a wintry Six Nations afternoon, the Lansdowne Roar dulls my senses but I hear you-know-who on my inside and No13 on my outside, both screaming for the try scoring offload.

You wait and wait, knowing the scramble defenders cannot collar you, knowing all that needs doing is to draw the French fullback. I take a nanosecond to check if Mr Poitrenaud’s hips have betrayed him. Nope, perfect, he has planted his feet and intends to smash me chest high.

I release just as he cuts me in two.

That is the only pain I miss. Being laid out on the grass, covered in blood, muck and phlegm, enjoying the cacophony. I tap-out so Poitrenaud releases his bear hug, skipping the wild celebrations to jog over halfway and into position for the restart, where I suck in some precious oxygen as you-know-who turns the try into seven points.

The score belongs to all of us. The coaches who drew it up, the public who willed it into existence, the hooker, the lifter, Paulie, Strings. All of us.

If anyone is a step out of place nothing happens. Nothing at all. The magic disappears as criticism overwhelms all our positive intentions.

Gordon D’Arcy gets tackled by Clement Poitrenaud during the 2007 Six Nations. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Gordon D’Arcy gets tackled by Clement Poitrenaud during the 2007 Six Nations. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

That’s all this game is about. Chasing invisible gaps. Linking the chain.

Ireland enter the Six Nations in a precarious state. One injury in a couple of positions will alter their aspirations of winning the championship or bagging a triple crown or beating France in Dublin.

The hamstrings of you-know-who dictate the distance everyone can travel in 2021.

Harry Byrne is probably the heir apparent at outhalf. He possesses all the tools to become an international, but some of the evidence is still lacking to warrant a promotion to the Ireland camp. There is reasonable doubt. His back strain in the warm-up before Montpellier last December was his big opportunity lost. For now. Ross Byrne filled the gap, making it very difficult for the Ireland coach to look past him or Billy Burns.

It leaves everyone stuck in a waiting game. Harry Byrne was at it again last weekend as the Scarlets paper mache defending allowed Leinster rack up 50 points on the road. The lack of a true contest provides insufficient proof that Harry is the chosen one. Glimpses of the sublime are not enough. He needed to be exposed to elite European opposition before the call up could follow.

There is not much of that going around the Pro 14 and when Munster came into view last month the coaches went with you-know-who with the older Byrne brother in reserve.

Succession

Anyway, the lack of a clear line of succession ever since Joey Carbery destroyed his ankle ligaments in August 2019 leaves Ireland exposed.

This narrative will not go away. Not when someone keeps pulling up with small muscular injuries. Not when the Ireland team announcement is switched from the slot of four days before the game to 48 hours. Waiting for a leg to heal perhaps? Or the main man to train?

A similar concern exists at hooker. Ronán Kelleher has yet to grab the bull by the horns. Until the young hooker proves himself trustworthy under heavy pressure from someone like Alun Wyn Jones, Rob Herring’s technical reliability will trump Kelleher’s physical attributes.

Like outhalf, the selection presents a Catch 22. There is also a huge reliance on James Ryan and Iain Henderson to start in the secondrow.

Momentum is everything in this tournament

If we are talking about Ross Byrne, Billy Burns or the lineout come Sunday evening I’d be amazed if the trip to Wales has gone according to plan.

Truth be told, Ireland still need their 35-year-old captain to start every game this season. Last time we were in that situation was 2015 and an exploding hamstring just before half-time on the very pitch Ireland play this weekend saw the house of cards come tumbling down.

The rest of the group is in good shape. Pull Caelan Doris for concussion and Quinn Roux with a neck problem and fling open the gates to Carton House for Ryan Baird and Gavin Coombes. Two young bulls with a point to prove entering Ireland camp as Test week heats up - you love to see it.

On the evidence of 2020, Wales are very beatable. More so than Ireland. Unfortunately, we are back to the nitty-gritty of a Six Nations opening weekend where teams must win by any means. Everything will seem so smooth if the lineout and scrum are functioning and the captain plays for 80 minutes.

Get the basics right and the work being done behind the scenes by Mike Catt will suddenly become visible. That puts the emphasis on Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose to click in midfield. That alone will allow Hugo Keenan and Keith Earls to do their best Road Runner impressions.

Paul O’Connell is stretchered off at the Millennium Stadium in 2015. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Paul O’Connell is stretchered off at the Millennium Stadium in 2015. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Momentum is everything in this tournament. The coaches have had their time to deliver a message that got lost in translation last season. Take care of Wales and overcoming France at the Aviva Stadium will not seem insurmountable.

Not at all. Lose and all the pressure in the world will come down on Andy Farrell.

Horrendous memories

Ireland owe the Welsh one in Cardiff. The low point of Joe Schmidt’s time in the Six Nations happened under the pouring heavens of 2019.

Farrell is right to say this is a new group, but the backroom has horrendous memories of this stadium. It is where O’Connell was carried away from the sport. It is where the rest of the coaches suffered the ignominy of that defeat two years ago, sparking a succession of events that led to a jarring night in Shizuoka.

Such experiences will always haunt them. Same goes for all the senior players.

You can use that sort of hurt.

This is unquestionably a crossroads for the Ireland camp. Take a wrong turn at The Principality and the domino effect might prove unstoppable.

Win in a confident fashion and the journey opens up to every possibility. It is never that simple, but it feels like that right now.

All the big questions will be asked: Do we have the right people in charge? Are we on the right path?

Alun Wyn Jones wins a lineout during Wales’s win over Ireland in the 2019 Six Nations. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Inpho
Alun Wyn Jones wins a lineout during Wales’s win over Ireland in the 2019 Six Nations. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Inpho

Wales provides the perfect opposition to answer these questions. Success this weekend is a victory off the back of strong fundamentals.

We will only know if the team is in the right head space come kick-off. That’s the stress attached to coaching that I would have no interest in. Game day must be terrible as you cannot solve anything yourself. No World Cup final experience can help Mike Catt. O’Connell depends on Ryan as much as Farrell must trust you-know-who.

The coaches do not look over the players’ homework anymore. They had to move past that relationship because it malfunctioned so glaringly the last time they played Wales on this famous patch.

Trust is central to everything clicking into gear.

If we see Henshaw or Bundee Aki making a line break from a lineout, know it has little to do with them. It means the technical boys have got their timing spot on. They have replicated what they have been doing at training for the past 10 days.

Everyone moves as soon as the hooker’s elbows are cocked. That means the thrower has found Ryan at full stretch and Conor Murray is zipping a slick pass into midfield.

What happens next is a day dream that was once a reality. I understand what Zinedine Zidane meant when he said: “Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all. When I retire I will miss the green of the field, le carré vert.”

Along with the blood, the muck and the phlegm.

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