Gordon D’Arcy’s career scaled heights after few early stumbles
Ireland centre delivered on rare ability in 2004 when he was named player of season
A teenage Gordon D’Arcy at Ireland squad training in 1998. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Inpho
First sight of Gordon D’Arcy was on his knees in the background. The snapshot from March 1995 is of Geordan Murphy, his predecessor in the art of evasion, wheeling away in victorious celebration of a wonder try for Newbridge College in the Leinster Schools’ Cup semi-final at Lansdowne road.
The stocky skinhead in Clongowes Wood garb had just turned 16. Soon after Murphy was away to Leicester, never to return, leaving the canvas blank for D’Arcy to splash his prodigious attacking talents.
Over two decades fullback became a winger who became a centre as his destiny took a meandering, yet rarely unimpressive route. The journey will forever be associated with Brian O’Driscoll as D’Arcy’s career largely ran a shadowy parallel to Ireland’s greatest player – ever since the pair of them dazzled the Lansdowne road crowd in the 1997 schools semi-final, when D’Arcy’s thrilling break created the try that ensured victory over Blackrock.
Twelve months later he looked a fully formed man among boys, practically unstoppable as Clongowes destroyed all comers.
Warren Gatland agreed, the new Ireland coach requesting D’Arcy for the South Africa tour that June. The Leaving Certificate intervened but the 19-year-old won his first Ireland cap splintering the Romania defence at the 1999 World Cup.
Then his star dimmed. Eddie O’Sullivan overlooked him for the 2003 World Cup squad but some tough love from Leinster coach Matt Williams saw him rejuvenated as a winger.
An overdue Six Nations debut came that spring in Paris when replacing the temporarily injured O’Driscoll. Finally, at 24, D’Arcy began to deliver on his rare ability. He was named player of the tournament as Ireland captured their first Triple Crown since 1985. Remoulded at centre, 13 was swapped for 12 when O’Driscoll returned. “I just hope I never get too comfortable being here,” he said in that self-effacing manner. “David Humphreys said to me afterwards that I have set a standard for myself and it is up to me to meet that standard every game.”
That he achieved. Twice D’Arcy’s peers recognised him as player of the season, in 2004 and 2007, and for a time he and O’Driscoll held the world record for a centre partnership – 56 times they wore green together, almost always faced by humongous figures but so rarely have more cerebral players worked in tandem.
“He’s the best defensive player I’ve ever played with,” O’Driscoll said. Not unlike David Wallace for Munster and Ireland, who spent so much of time shadowing Ronan O’Gara or carrying ball the ugliest of inches, D’Arcy sacrificed his God-given gift of expression on a rugby field to play second fiddle to O’Driscoll’s majesty.
There’s a lingering sense that D’Arcy was undervalued but Conor O’Shea, who made way for the first of his 81 caps, summed him up nicely. “To this day, Darce is exactly the same. Nothing has changed him. It’s important what you are like as a rugby player, but more important what you are like as a person. Darce is just a genuinely nice bloke who happens to be a bloody good rugby player.”
Yesterday, via an open letter, he eloquently confirmed what was long suspected.
This autumn’s World Cup, if selected in Joe Schmidt’s 31-man squad, will be his last days doing what he does better than most men.
Life and an array of other task and duties are poised to take over. Like a new family. Co-owner of Form School pilates, with his wife Aoife, and the Exchequer wine bars (Dublin city and Ranelagh), he also recently did an internship with Investec Bank.
Clearly, he has planned wisely for life after rugby. Now comes one final, daunting challenge. “I hope he goes to the World Cup,” said O’Shea, “as I think Ireland can do something amazing, whether he be the father figure putting arms around fellas or the starting player.”
That remains a decision for Schmidt but D’Arcy’s inclusion would be a fitting epilogue to one of Irish sports nonlinear, yet epic careers.