Gordon D’Arcy: New breed will define World Cup
Defences are so organised that pace and power are essential to modern game
It’s no fun having to tackle someone like Mathieu Bastareaud if he gets a 10-yard run on you. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Every World Cup has its own personality, a style of play that evolves the game of rugby. This year will be no different.
We have already seen most of the individuals who can dominate this tournament. Because that’s what it will be about: huge, athletic specimens who can tear down regimented defensive structures and decide important matches.
In many respects, knowing what’s coming, I’m able to live with not making Joe’s 31-man squad. Disappointed, sure, but have you seen the size of the three quarters I’ve been tackling since 2011? This will be the tournament of many Jonah Lomus. The game has moved on. Again. I have not, but remain sanguine about the non-sporting trade route(s) I’m embarking upon.
I go all the way back to the 1999 World Cup, a radically different era.
First thing I remember about that time is Trevor Brennan scaring the life out of me in a hotel corridor. I didn’t know Trevor so well back then but I knew what he was capable of doing to another grown man. My real introduction to senior rugby was Trev reacting to a late tackle during a pre-season match in August 1998. He pummelled the head off the guy.
I wasn’t in Clongowes Wood anymore.
Anyway, Warren Gatland, our 35-year-old coach, was trying to get everyone to sing the national anthem as a way of unifying the group.
There were a few English guys and Dion O Cuinneagain, a South African doctor, was our captain. Everyone would learn it. We are all in this together sort of vibe.
This naturally resonated with Trevor (who has a stick man complete with Irish flag tattooed on his shoulder).
There I was, 19 years old and fresh out of boarding school, strolling down the hotel corridor after training when Brennan turns the corner.
Not another soul around. How’s it going Trevor? He looks down, grabs my throat and slams me up against the wall. Sing Amhrán na Bhfiann!
Panicking, I sort of giggle. Trevor’s black eyes stare back. Sing the national anthem! I started to well up so he took pity on me. No worries, Darce, I know you know it. He found it hilarious. I would fall over laughing seeing that happen to a young lad now but for a few seconds I wasn’t sure I was going to make it back to my room.
Out on the field it was also about mismatches. Line breaks were not at the premium they are nowadays. You looked up, found a prop or a big lock and streaked past him.
One thing I’ve learned, worryingly, from my involvement in World Cups is how competitive France invariably are. In 1999 Australia proved themselves to be the best team but France produced the most memorable performance to remove the All Blacks.
By 2003 attacking off first phase was the main route to a try. The launch pad was set piece. If you got a scrum or lineout in decent position seven points should have been gathered within three phases.
Or a drop goal. Hence Jonny Wilkinson was the dominant figure (the whole of Wales must be hanging their heads after Leigh Halfpenny’s injury). That was England’s edge. That and a phenomenal pack.
France destroyed us in the quarters before Freddie Michalak ruined any chance of them overcoming England in the rain.
Didn’t make that squad either. I was the last man cut after coming back from a training camp in Bilbao. Got a call from Eddie, not unlike the one I took from Joe last week. Well, same yet vastly different.
One got me off the wing, the other out of rugby.
Last Saturday’s defeat in Twickenham already has people making comparisons to 2007. That’s knee-jerk behaviour. So much has been said about what went wrong in and around Bordeaux but in reality we just peaked at Croke Park six months beforehand.
In ’07 the iron curtain of defences had arrived so the Garryowen bombed back into fashion. Coping with it had a lot to do with why South Africa and Argentina were so successful. Juan Hernandez turned it into an art form but every team was doing it. The Pumas got the jump on everyone bar the Springboks.
Again, France ended our chances and they were brilliant when defeating the All Blacks before blowing it against England in the semi-finals.
By 2011 the power game was firmly in place. The backlines of all four semi-finalists were far bigger than those knocked out in the quarters.
Before the Welsh defence ended our journey, we crucified the Wallabies in all the collision zones that night at Eden Park (that was when I realised there was nothing but years of tackling and counter-rucking ahead for a centre of my size).
Defence, ultimately, and converting the few chances that came, won it for New Zealand in a low-scoring tournament but France – always France at the World Cup – should have been champions.
Nowadays defences are so regimented, so tough to break down that it’s come down to individual pace and power to create the winning scores.
England, particularly Anthony Watson on the wing and number eight Ben Morgan, bring these weapons in abundance. South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Wales also have great individual attackers in Julian Savea, George North, Israel Folau, Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Damian de Allende and Jamie Roberts. And that’s only a few of them.
These line-breakers, all numbered 12 to 15, are rugby’s new breed.
So, what to do?
In the current game a line break remains the key element. Dave Kearney has been Ireland’s best ball-carrier during the warm-ups but we do have Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson, a fit Cian Healy and increasingly Robbie Henshaw.
On three occasions in Murrayfield last March we simply went: there’s the ball Seanie and he broke the Scottish line. Henderson did the same in Cardiff last month. That’s sheer power. It’s so important for a successful tournament.
Still, we have to manufacture scores via a more collective approach.
Rugby remains a simple pursuit. Clean the ruck quickly and any training ground move can be replicated. If everyone is where they should be, then opposing defenders will do what you want them to do. Playing international rugby is far from easy but it’s not that hard either. For any attacking play, each Irish individual only has two or three movements. It’s not like an NFL playbook. You don’t need to memorise 40 plays and be able to adapt at any given moment.
Take Andrew Trimble’s try in Paris in 2014. A prime example of Ireland playing to their strengths, Brian broke the gainline off a scrum and four forwards came around the corner. France gambled the mortgage on one of them getting the ball so Conor Murray could play heads-up rugby, making a half break as Andrew came super-late on a short ball.
There’s no magic formula. Solid set piece, accuracy and correct decision-making.
I’m not that concerned about the first half at Twickenham. The warm-ups were primarily about seeing different combinations and winning games, while keeping as much under wraps as possible.
England, who need to be further down the tracks considering their pool, showed how off the pace our defence was and emphasised the importance of quick ball. There’s no harm in this sobering experience at the World Cup final venue a month before we play France.
The significant moments were all about individual game-breakers. Jonny May created something out of nothing and finished it off. Joe Marler went right up the middle of the pitch to create their disallowed try. The one intangible in a sport laden with analysis is you can always beat an isolated player.
It would be premature to judge how England are going to do at the World Cup off that performance alone. Same goes for us. In the second half we started to play off the second set of hands, Johnny, which forced the English defence to sit off a little.
Everything for us comes down to winning the contact battle on October 11th. How do we do it? The New England Patriots had “Do Your Job” engraved on their Super Bowl rings. I love that. A simple message, yet its meaning to the players will last forever. To me, those three words encapsulate the meaning of a team.
The French are coming with immense power. We felt it last February in Dublin. It was a testament to our stubbornness and mentality under Joe that we got out of that match with victory. The last 20 minutes, when they emptied their bench, were brutal.
When we do well against teams such as New Zealand and France it’s always about a good defensive scrum or lineout denying rapid service to Bastareaud so people are not defending his ilk alone. If the Ireland scrum gets annihilated, this modern breed of three-quarter gets a 10-metre run at one of our outside defenders. That’s no fun I can tell you.
The South Africa game last November is a good example of Ireland simply fronting up against a physically bigger team. Robbie and Jared were supposed to get shown up physically. The opposite occurred. Trust me, I was paying close attention.
Philippe Saint André might help us out by starting Michalak at outhalf. Not bringing Francois Trinh-Duc seems like a mistake. Still, France remain the ultimate World Cup team and they grow into every tournament.
If we get everything going for us against them and win our pool, we can make the final. If not, then it’s a quarter-final exit.
At least the rules still reward defensive teams. And disciplined teams. Bar the Wales game, we have been both of those since Joe took over.
We are still weeks off where we plan to be. I wouldn’t be overly concerned; so many combinations were tried out in the four warm-ups. The coaches needed to see what they would do in the case of injuries, of which there will be plenty. You look at the first few weeks of the Premier League and wonder how these guys are paid €300,000 a week yet their touch is so poor. Everyone needs time to settle.
I imagine it’s going to be impossible to keep the public’s expectation levels in check. The GAA is nearly over. Eat, drink, sleep rugby for the next few weeks.