Gordon D’Arcy: End of an era for centre of golden generation
The Ireland centre reflects on the highs and lows at the heart of Ireland’s best ever team
Gordon D’Arcy: “You stay at the table long enough and eventually you don’t get picked. That’s happened to me now. I’m very sanguine and relaxed about it all.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It ended where it began. The 35-year-old former rugby professional lingered in the doorway of Bective Rangers clubhouse, decked out in new Leinster blue, as the game moved rapidly on without him.
To borrow Shane Jennings’s parting line, a bunch of genetic freaks headed back out for the second half of a preseason match on the artificially manicured Donnybrook.
Gordon D’Arcy stalled momentarily before showering and changing into civilian clothes. For the first time in his adult life that’s what he is now. A father, a husband, a businessman. The last of his era.
Few noticed his typically quiet departure last Friday evening. The 40-minute run-out against Moseley – coached by Kevin Maggs who D’Arcy shifted from Ireland’s 12 jersey 11 years ago – proved a just-in-case measure for Joe Schmidt. It’s where, as a 14-year-old, he burst on to the Irish rugby scene, a schoolboy gem for Clongowes Wood way back in 1994.
“I did actually think about that as I ran out: this is where it all started and where it’s all ending,” D’Arcy says.
“Look, I knew at the start of the summer that I needed everything to fall perfectly for me. The only thing is to control what you can do: your audition. Some lads got the Wales game, some got Scotland.”
Scotland in Dublin, his 83rd and final Test match, his audition, didn’t go well.
“When I got the ball it came in unusually heavy traffic, which was annoying, but it wasn’t a game for a 12. Then I missed a number of tackles I ordinarily wouldn’t miss.”
Afterwards he knew.
“My old coach Vinnie Murray used to always say, ‘After a game you look in the mirror and know if you had a good or a bad game. You don’t need anyone else to tell you.’ I knew coming off I hadn’t done enough,” he says.
“This was always going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a rugby player. I’m 35, didn’t play much rugby in the second half of last season. I went from being a starter against Australia in November to just about making the bench for Leinster.”
Schmidt, naturally, delivered the news in a manner D’Arcy continues to admire.
“I have a really good relationship with Joe. I know him really well. We’ve had various conversations about my form down through the years, about how I need to improve. You talk about honesty and how it is at a premium in professional sport but he delivers every time. It was a quick conversation. I knew the reasons before he picked up the phone.”
Regrets? “Not at all. I gave it everything this summer. I ran myself into the ground in the Scotland game, threw my body into everything. This is the last dot on my career timeline. You stay at the table long enough and eventually you don’t get picked. That’s happened to me now. I’m very sanguine and relaxed about it all,” D’Arcy says.
He was driving to a family barbecue when Schmidt rang.
“My two nephews wanted to talk about SpongeBob SquarePants. They don’t care that I didn’t make the World Cup squad. My baby [daughter Soleil] was smiling at me, asking to pick her up.
“But I don’t want to make light of the fact I am not going. I have tried everything to make that plane. My whole life has been about playing for Ireland for the last 17 years. But there is an element to this that is a little bit different. I’m not the best player in my position any more.”
He noticed the Payne-Henshaw partnership before anyone else.
“I saw that happening in training. It’s like seeing your sporting obituary being written before your eyes. Jared is excellent at bringing people into the game. Robbie is a freakish athlete with great skills, great decision-making and is always hungry to learn.
“I knew when he was picking my brain it would catch up on me. But Kevin Maggs and Conor O’Shea did it for me. You got to want to be able to help the other guys and be man enough to accept exclusion if the younger guy is better than you are. Otherwise, we are just any middle-of-the-road team.”
Letting go of something you love is the hardest thing to do. The trick is to get as far away from it as possible. For a while at least. He’s not going to the World Cup. Went in 1999 as a teenager. Overlooked in 2003. Central cog for the malfunctioning 2007 machine and again in 2011, when he was part of rugby’s version of Wozniak to Jobs.
Like clockwork last Wednesday, as D’Arcy headed out of a cafe in Ranelagh, Brian O’Driscoll strolled past with his young family.
“It’s been said down through the years that I was a foil for Brian but I never understood what people meant by that. The junior partner? Nonsense. It goes against the motto I’ve built this career around. If, say, Brian wasn’t there, would I have had as good a career? No way. We supported each other in all the good stuff and bad stuff. We got through the toughest challenges imaginable because we worked together. We shared the load.”
Having a voice on the game – via a new The Irish Times column, starting next Wednesday – still appeals. It should be interesting, mainly due to how rarely he showed his personality as a player, despite being under the glare of publicity since a stocky 15-year-old skinhead lost the 1996 schools semi-final to Geordan Murphy’s Newbridge. In 1997 he tore open O’Driscoll’s Blackrock midfield. By 1998 he was untouchable as Clongowes’ greatest ever team powered to the Leinster schools senior cup.
So good Warren Gatland wanted to cap him in South Africa that summer. His Dad, John, a Mayo native who worked for the Bank of Ireland in Wexford, and the late Vinnie Murray, more mentor than coach or teacher, intervened. They presented options and allowed him to make up his own mind. He sat the Leaving Certificate instead of a June tour.
He trusted the wise men in his life – and still does. Matt Williams was another who provided tough love at a pivotal moment.
Gary Ella also recognised his class. The Australian’s one season as Leinster coach, 2003-04, was shrouded in calamity but he did turn D’Arcy into a 13. Ever so briefly. The other guy returned from injury and there followed a very simple choice: “Once Brian came back, one of two things was going to happen: I would become the reserve 13 or change my game entirely by moving to inside centre. I wasn’t going back to the wing.”
Basically becoming ying a few weeks after discovering how suited he was at being yang, he’s many things none of us know about. However, one trait coursing through his career is selflessness.
A thrilling schools fullback converted to wing due to Girvan Dempsey’s positional superiority, centre suited his natural instincts.
“It forced me to become a better player as I was in constant motion, always organising,” D’Arcy says.
With a professional contract straight out of school D’Arcy gravitated towards the old ways of Irish rugby. But he was never a James O’Connor or worse a Zac Guildford type but that became his caricature for a few seasons.
“You get a reputation. A lot of lads were doing the same as me whereas I was messing up on the pitch. The reasoning behind that was I must be a party boy.”
By the time Eddie O’Sullivan went with Tyrone Howe for the 2003 World Cup squad, he was living a “monk-like” existence for over a year. But that career low moment opened a route to the heights he did attain.
“I was a cog in the wheel. We were a team. Once we all got our head around that, our specific roles, we became a successful team. I never had any problem with that. I was able to park my ego because I wanted to be a winner. And I wanted to be in the team.”
Epic yet understated
His career has been epic, yet understated. And different. No one else would have considered sporting that heavy a beard. Nor was he ever interested in rugby’s alpha male environment. That’s just not him, even when he became the country’s longest-serving Irish international after two Lions tours and three Heineken Cup medals.
“I never felt like a senior player.”
But you became one?
“Yes, I am one of the most senior players to ever play for Ireland. I was always more comfortable leading by my actions on the pitch.”
Not that it ever bothered him.
“I made my decisions. After breaking onto the scene and having the world at my feet, I jumped off the cliff. Then I got a second chance and fought my way back by 2004. I had some horrific articles written about me around 2000 and 2001. I remember thinking: these are the same guys putting me up on a pedestal 12 months before.
“After the much-talked about meeting with Matt Williams, my dad and [agent] Fintan Drury, I realised I needed to be more professional – I decided I was going to be a rugby player and nothing else. Not just with the media [an interview was rare], I turned down a lot of financial opportunities to focus on rugby.”
When his sporting mortality came into view, he invested in the Exchequer pub and a pilates centre called Form School with his wife Aoife.
“It goes back to having a very pragmatic father. Dad wasn’t against the idea of professionalism; he was just against me not having other qualifications. We saved large chunks of my salary so I could invest in things. When the Exchequer came around the business plan looked right so I got involved.”
That’s the pub on Exchequer Street run by school friends Ian Tucker and Peter Rock with another partner in Thor O’Brien.
“They are childhood friends but that’s no reason to go into business with someone. The business plan was solid.”
They opened a second wine bar in Ranelagh last year. Initially just an investor who could promote the place by being a Leinster player, he’s now more hands on where possible.
Form School was born in 2013. “My wife was finishing up in her career as a model, after about 12 years, and wanted to own her own business. We had both been doing pilates for years.”
They have created an artistic, bohemian feel to the place.“We want to give people an hour’s sanctuary from their lives with the best pilates teachers. All our teachers have to have ten years’ experience. We have eight teachers now. We were not willing to sacrifice our product.”
Aoife is front of house. “She’s brilliant with people.”
D’Arcy does the accounts. He also starts a full-time job with Investec in January. That’s the future. There are few regrets from a past doused in greatness.
“I keep going back to what Vinnie Murray told me.”
Gordon D’Arcy can look himself in the eye.