D’Arcy: Saturday’s test seems easier and that’s why it isn’t

Players are under unfamiliar pressure as defeat to Italy would be a huge setback

With twelve new players in the squad could this be the Six Nations Championship where Italy shake off the long held notion that they are defined solely by star player Sergio Parisse? John O'Sullivan reports. Video: David Dunne


I smashed my forearm to smithereens playing Italy in 2008. Three invasive surgeries later and the eight fractures had not healed properly so I was forced to investigate life after rugby much sooner than expected. I was 28-years-old.

Somehow, after losing a full year in my prime, the bones knitted back together and I made a try-scoring return against France in 2009.

It was no coincidence that the injury occurred against Italy. Midway through the first half I was already into double digit tackles when my swinging forearm collided perfectly with the point of Andrea Masi’s elbow as he protected the ball. The arm shattered.

Italy games are about direct physicality but we always believed we would win. After beating England at Twickenham in 2004 we knew if we performed to our expected standard we could beat any team. There is no more valuable a mentality in sport.

Needing victories over Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign was always the second worst case scenario going into the Six Nations. The worst was losing to them.

In recent memory there have been three standout years when Ireland have been dreadful in the championship; the post-World Cup campaigns (2008 and 2012) and the injury-ravaged 2013 when we lost in Edinburgh then Rome.

This need not be one of those seasons but a heavy, unfamiliar pressure comes on Ireland over these next two Saturdays. This has become a vicious fight to escape last place in the table.

From back-to-back champions to that situation is a downward curve no matter what way it is viewed, while Italy and Scotland are on upward curves.

Italy almost beat France, they stayed with England and came back at Scotland. They are slowly closing the gap. Conor O’Shea arrival, along with Mike Catt’s technical expertise, will bring them on next season.

Individual excellence

Jacques Brunel is a highly respected coach but they still rely on the individual excellence of Sergio Parisse and others. Some technical, modernised nuances will make them a different animal. For now they remain a very dangerous one.

This brings us to the topic of attrition. When did Ireland become an attritional team? I believe we are far less attritional than other nations. People get confused with attrition and a certain amount of essential phase play. It might look like we are sending forwards around the corner just for the sake of it but there is always an intended end result with Joe Schmidt teams.

When I started playing regularly for Ireland in 2004 we always expected to score off set-piece ball. There are countless examples of how we won matches off first or second phase possession. In 2006 we beat South Africa 32-15 at home. After just four minutes Andrew Trimble came off his wing to score a try, popping up on Ronan O’Gara’s’s shoulder, after Anthony Foley made yardage off the scrum.

Second Captains

Nowadays, it’s a vastly different sport where a score after eight or nine phases is a serious achievement. However, to call Ireland’s style of play attritional is incorrect in the sense they are not like the Springboks, who launch wave after wave of 18-stone runners, firmly believing their power game will eventually crumble any defensive wall. Ireland go out to find soft shoulders and play at a high tempo. When the execution is poor it can look like we are playing an overly attritional game.

Italy are an attritional team. But that’s not what Saturday game will be about. Ireland will accept the rules of engagement but, above all else, there is an unfamiliar mental hurdle they must clear.

That’s what comes during a campaign littered with ifs and buts. If we had beaten Wales the pressure would have been off and we could have played a high risk-reward game knowing that a big victory had been banked in 2016. If Ireland lose to Italy or Scotland there will be repercussions. That’s an unavoidable reality hanging over the players. I remember that pressure and it can be suffocating.

Your body tightens up, your natural game can be elusive. More experienced players will know how to handle this but for younger players it’s a horrible feeling that is very hard to solve during a game.

Wales and England always put a truck load of points on Italy because they are the two most abrasive teams in the Six Nations. Italy have a big, aggressive pack who have matched us up front in recent meetings at the World Cup and Rome last year. If we play an overly confrontational game against them we will struggle. Joe is on record stating we are not built to play that game. Of course any success in rugby is based on being physically dominant.

When Joe took over at Leinster in 2010 he did dovetail with much of the structures Michael Cheika had put in place but they have vastly different coaching philosophies. Cheiks is of the Australian set-play school, where a priority was placed on first phase moves, which we were accustomed to, to break down the opposition early then finish them off.

Joe brought a modernised version of rugby to Leinster, slightly ahead of the curve as he tends to be, with a multi-phases approach to engineer scores. Now there was plenty of no-look passing off Johnny Sexton to put Luke Fitzgerald or Brian (O’Driscoll) into open country but the game was vastly different five years ago to what it is now.

That amount of space to attack doesn’t exist anymore. There are so many moving parts now that if any player drops below eight out of ten in the execution of his specific role then the sequence of events cannot create a try.

Last month Ireland so nearly opened Wales up after just 10 minutes. Robbie Henshaw carried off lineout ball, CJ Stander looped around and took out two defenders but just as Rory Best arrived around the corner Conor Murray switched the point of attack in the opposite direction. Ironically the ball was too quick and the switch didn’t lure the Welsh defence into over folding.

We have seen Irish players pounding into brick walls near the French and English try line but coming away with no points because of the sheer volume of defenders. It looks like Ireland lack imagination, that we are playing overly attritional rugby when hitting phase play well into the teens.

When I see a move break down my brain tells me the attack wasn’t mortally wounded at the moment of failure. More often than not the malfunction occurred a few phases earlier when guys clearing a ruck didn’t take enough defenders out of the equation. That’s where Seán O’Brien and Iain Henderson are so badly missed. When they carry they take at least one man to ground with them.

CJ Stander’s ball-carrying will cause more damage than he could at Twickenham. If Stuart McCloskey gets another run I’d expect him to do just that. Directly and at every opportunity.

Everybody in Carton will be on tenterhooks until Joe names the team tomorrow . He wants his players on edge. It works for us. Irish players when they find themselves in this heavy pressure scenario do the extras on top on the extras. All the preparation is covered, training has been sharp, but you can’t help thinking: ‘what else can I do’? It’s like studying for your final exams. You know the work is done but in those last 48 hours you go back through your notes.

To the players it is still about performance but the public won’t be happy with a swashbuckling, three-try return if we lose 30-27.

So the focus must be on playing 80 one-minute battles. You break everything down. Moment by moment. Make sure every moving part of your performance is at least eight out of 10.

That’s how I was able to survive after moving from wing to centre as a 23-year- old. I went from a few involvements in a game to perpetual motion. Eighty one-minute battles – you become the outhalf’s second set of eyes, the outside centre’s trusted inside shoulder. When you switch off they seem to be making mistakes. You get one mulligan then they 10 and 13 (In my case ROG and Briano) expect you to get it right. If you don’t get up to speed they will go find someone else.

Kevin Maggs, a 70-cap veteran, had been dropped for me so I got the message from a few glances after I missed a tackle or was caught out of position.

Tuned in

Some guys could switch in and out of this mindset. Geordan Murphy could crack a joke with the referee (hence he could captain a club like Leicester) then do something out of the ordinary a moment later. I had to stay tuned in to ensure my standard never dipped. When the ball wasn’t in play I was always scanning the horizon for space. I had to stay within the flow of the game. Before Eddie O’Sullivan picked me for Ireland he would point out that eight good moments, four neutral moments and two errors do not give you a score of plus two in a game.

There must be no negatives actions and the neutral, half-hearted actions have to be eradicated. Ultan Dillane coped well with the step up to Test rugby against England but he only played 15 minutes. He is an incredible athlete who could be a long-term blindside. All his moments against England were positive.

All three of Ireland’s new caps should be challenged to have a bigger impact on the game because they are capable of doing so. Sport can be cruel but hopefully we will retrospectively look back at Twickenham as the launch pad for sustained international careers of Josh van der Flier, McCloskey and Dillane.

Saturday’s Test seems easier and that’s precisely why it isn’t.

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