Gordon D’Arcy: Paris in the springtime is a whole world of its own

Ireland look like they could win the lot but the Six Nations can be a surreal experience

Leading the charge against France in my first start for Ireland. It’s always such an alien environment playing in Paris. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Leading the charge against France in my first start for Ireland. It’s always such an alien environment playing in Paris. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

 

My first act in the Six Nations was a spiral. Check the archives. It happened. I hadn’t kicked a rugby ball in a game for over two years. Dropped it on my foot, low end over end and watched it roll into the five metre channel. Our lineout just outside the French 22.

First start for Ireland. Sixth cap almost five years after the first. I’d been the 31st man, and therefore left at home, from the World Cup in Australia five months earlier. Gary Ella switched me to 13 in January 2004. It went well. Brian was hamstrung so, suddenly, there I was between Mal O’Kelly and Keith Gleeson for the anthems.

Days like this.

I swear the first half was four minutes long, the second no more than two minutes. A haze. This suited me as every second seemed like an hour that morning. Excruciating nerves until my boots were laced.

That’s when I tended to calm down.  

The Six Nations can be a surreal experience. Playing France in Paris is almost dream like. Even against this French offering on Saturday. It’s such an alien environment. Beware Les Bleus with a free roll of the dice and outhalves with a combined age of 41.

If ever I got into a brawl with Yannick Jauzion and Damien Traille down a dark alley and could choose one man for support it would be Kevin Maggs

I know exactly what I’d say to Bundee Aki in the warm-up because I remember what Kevin Maggs whispered in my ear all those years ago. There’s a reason why you are here. Go with the first idea that comes into your head (Point being: with Olivier Magne and Serge Betsen on the prowl there wouldn’t be time for a second thought – what flankers they were; just think how far France have fallen since).

I can’t tell you the value of playing alongside Maggsy. He probably realised my rise meant his demise but I never sensed that attitude. Put it this way. If ever I got into a brawl with Yannick Jauzion and Damien Traille down a dark alley and could choose one man for support it would be Kevin Maggs.

“Back yourself every time Darce. I don’t care if it’s a bad decision, I’ll follow you down that hole!”

Rog was the same. Let’s keep it very simple. “If you want the ball Gordon demand it.” So I did. I just went for it in Paris playing for Ireland on St Valentine’s Day. Roy of the Rovers had nothing on me.

Except we lost.

Amateur heroes

But we won every other game that season and took the Triple Crown for the first time since 1985. That was a huge deal back then because it was historic, a link to Irish rugby’s amateur heroes and proved a launch pad for success in the professional era. 

Kevin Maggs gave me unbelievable support that first day in Paris. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
'Kevin Maggs gave me unbelievable support that first day in Paris.' Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Different times but a Triple Crown in 2018, captured at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, would sit nicely among the other great moments in Irish rugby.

Talk of World Cup preparation will not have breached the Ireland squad this past fortnight. It’s irrelevant to a player but does highlight an old parallel between Six Nations performance and RWC success, which so rarely proves to be correct, certainly not for Ireland.

Getting picked for Paris still means everything to these men as it validates the past few months of tireless work. Once they know that all they care about is their performance.

Looking after yourself feeds naturally into the team, but it’s a selfish time. Winning does have a cost as family and friends are left behind for two months.

I wasn’t thinking about the World Cup in February 2006. It was buried somewhere in my subconscious as a box I wanted to tick but nothing more.

The World Cup only becomes of interest to players after St Patrick’s weekend in 2019. And even then they must shut it out of their minds because there will almost certainly be Champions Cup quarter-final to be ready for. 

What happens between then and now will not decide Ireland’s fate in Japan but it will give supporters something to discuss

The subconscious may start edging into the lucid realm in that players will mind themselves a little more. Not that they can. The Pro 14 might suffer (as we, arguably, saw with Leinster and Saracens’ performances last May as the Lions tour came into view).

Really, the World Cup only becomes a reality while on holidays 18 months from now. What happens between then and now will not decide Ireland’s fate in Japan but it will give supporters something to discuss. 

The punter sees it coming and needs to decide whether a month in Japan next year is a runner. Joe Schmidt and his management need to be primed – and they already are after last summer’s dry run – for whatever scenario is thrown at them.But for me, for as long as I can remember, the month of February has brought its own excitement. Either the Schools Cup was upon us in Clongowes Wood or the Six Nations. I was either in or out – and mostly out of the reckoning – until 2004 when everything clicked into place for me and as it turned out Ireland.

Thumping in Paris

The start of the greatest and worst of days began with a thumping in Paris.

I see this Ireland squad and can put myself in almost every player’s mindset. There are three phases of an international career. 

The beginning: James Ryan on the cusp of playing his first game at Stade de France. Pure excitement, a little fear and realisation of teenage hopes. 

The middle years: Pete O’Mahony, age 28 now, and only interested in winning. Not just games. Tournaments. Legacy begins to matter in your late twenties. What will I leave behind? This is my peak.

Then there’s the old men: Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney who have won it all and are desperate to squeeze every last drop out of these days. 

In fairness Johnny is 32 and Rob only 31 so they have time. 

The Ireland squad have a seriously balanced look now; a spread of talent but I’m not going to compare them to championship winning groups of 2009, 2014 and 2015 because it’s a waste of time. We don’t know how Ireland will go in the Six Nations. We never really do. Last year we lost two matches to Scotland and Wales.

That’s what came to my mind reading all the predictions of Ireland being capable of winning the tournament. Never mind another Grand Slam, victories in the same year in Paris and Twickenham have not happened in my lifetime.  

That should change the perspective.

Up until 2009 all Irish rugby had was Munster’s success. For all the Triple Crowns we still finished second in the championship and had badly let ourselves down at the 2007 World Cup.

Munster players had two medals that mattered. Leinster and the rest had nothing.

The current squad makes up half the 2015 championship winning side but plenty of them have won nothing (the old Connacht midfield have their Pro12 medals). So the World Cup can wait. So can winning medals. Victory in Paris is rare enough. I won there once in a 17-season career – in 2014, the Six Nations clincher.

That was the end of an era: 2009 to 2014.

Joe did masterfully cultivate the remains of occasional glory days with a squad changing significantly in 2015 yet still retaining their title. That’s so impressive. And so difficult.

Sneaks into the head

France have been dreadful for a while now but they still finished on 14 points last season. Same as Ireland and we beat them in Dublin.  

Beware the stand alone Six Nations Test match. I was never in fear of the Scots or Welsh coming to Dublin. Probably should have been. The Croke Park loss to Scotland sneaks into the head every now and again. Dropping the ball over the try line just before half-time. If looks could kill under the Hogan Stand I wouldn’t be writing this column.

Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and James Ryan. Henshaw will have to guide Aki through his first game in the Stade de France while Ryan have a lot of excitement and a little bit of fear. Photograph: Inpho
Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and James Ryan. Henshaw will have to guide Aki through his first game in the Stade de France while Ryan will have a lot of excitement and a little bit of fear. Photograph: Inpho

Some of our greatest days have been victories in Twickenham and Paris but that’s what it requires to win on these patches of grass: a sensational, unrelenting performance.

Speculation before the Six Nations tends to be wrong. Really, we only know what we don’t know: England and Wales could be decimated by injury (more likely Wales). England could have a scary strength in depth or it will show the Premiership player is over-exposed. Scotland could set the championship alight with Stuart Hogg and friends attacking from everywhere. Conor O’Shea will put out an Italy team that will try to ruin or outwit all comers – and it might work but everyone is forewarned. France could be terrible or might uncover sparks of the old flair.

Unlikely, but unknown.

We didn’t know what we were going to do in 2009 especially after not doing what we set out to do in 2007.

The only time this Ireland coach seemed fazed was against Argentina in 2015. That week, that first 40 minutes 

Schmidt has tried to address this issue by basing the Ireland structures on controlling the controllables. On playing to certain standards all the time. On planning for almost every scenario.

It’s reassuring but still unknown come a Paris afternoon. The only time this Ireland coach seemed fazed was against Argentina in 2015. That week, that first 40 minutes.  

Of course there are lessons in that harrowing experience but hand Ireland the same ridiculous set of circumstances for the 2019 World Cup quarter-final at the Ajinomoto stadium in Chofu and maybe the strength in depth will be able to withstand such an onslaught from a fully stocked opposition.

I don’t know. Nobody does.

New dimension

A curve ball is coming in this Six Nations. It could be Paris against Brunel’s kids or it could be a result of playing the French. Again, see how many men they took from us at the last World Cup.

Say we lose five of our best players, the Italy game takes on an entirely new dimension. Never mind Japan 2019, very quickly Twickenham on Paddy’s Day will fade from view. This week drags in Carton House. The morning in Paris will feel like an eternity but the game itself will be a blur.

I cherish these memories, and thankfully that never changes, not for Rory Best down to James Ryan. Everyone feels the same jolt of adrenaline leaving the changing room. The noise running at Stade de France out will always be like a baseball bat over the back of your head. 

Victory over there remains a rare bird. 

I also know what Robbie Henshaw will say to his pal in the warm-up.

“Back yourself every time Bundee. I don’t care if it’s a bad decision, I’ll follow you down that hole!”

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