All the hype and expectation and pressure that comes with this historic event can be used positively, can be used as inspiration; equally, it can overwhelm, overpower, it can paralyse. Striking the balance, that’s what the players will be trying to do, that’s what Gordon D’Arcy will be doing.
Unfortunately, there are among us those for whom talk of 1916, of 1921, of Black-and-Tans and Bloody Sundays in Croke Park, is still current, those for whom Croke Park is sacred soil, drenched in the blood of martyrs, those to whom rugby and soccer are anathema, games of the foreigners who spilled that blood.
A proud son of Wexford, a lifelong GAA fan, Gordon d’Arcy knows the full weight of the history, knows exactly how big this event really is.
“Around my home in Clonard, in my national school in Bunclody all we played was hurling, until I was 15. I remember walking to school with the backpack and the hurl thrown across it. It’s very hard to actually articulate how much it means to me; some guys may have been able to articulate it better, but I’m just overawed at being able to play there. I was down at the Wexford Wanderers rugby dinner a couple of weeks ago and George O’Connor, a man I hugely admire, was giving me a few tips on how to handle it all.”
George O’Connor, man of true steel, Wexford hero of ‘96 when, after nearly two decades of heartbreak, he inspired the Yellowbellies to their first All-Ireland title in nearly 30 years. Hurling’s George O’Connor, embracing rugby’s Gordon D’Arcy. “Yeah, hands that would crack walnuts! Larry O’Gorman was there as well (another star of ‘96), same thing, but these are guys I’d have idolised, growing up, and it felt a bit special, getting advice from them.”
Wishing him well, knowing full well the immensity of the occasion facing him. That flood of goodwill is coming from all quarters, in fact. “One of the good things about Wexford people, they don’t actually compare the different sports, they’re just really happy to see us getting on. A few of us now are starting to get recognition — Linda Caulfield captained the Ireland hockey team, Kevin Doyle is doing the business with Reading and Ireland, Mattie Forde is doing it in gaelic football, the hurling revival has started under John Meyler, and I’m doing my bits and pieces.”
Anyway, what of Sunday? Croke Park factor aside, how difficult is it going to be against the French?
“I was actually thinking about that lately, when was the last time we beat France? 2004 we lost over there, 2005 they came here and beat us, 2006 we were there, had the weirdest game in world rugby last year (Ireland came from 43-3 down to lose 43-31, might even have won). I don’t think it enters into it but it shows us what we have to do. We have to be structured against France, we have to be on our game, we have to play really, really well. The Welsh game was really, really tough; if you saw the reaction of players afterwards, there was no-one jumping around clicking their heels, everyone was just going, ‘I’ve just played a serious, serious match.’ The Welsh guys were the same, but that’s the kind of performance you need week in, week out.”
How much of an advantage is it that Ireland had that tough game, while France steamrolled Italy?
“Where it was good for us was that we didn’t demolish Wales, not by any stretch of the imagination. You have to look at what France are doing in terms of personnel, and obviously they’ve retained guys like Chabal, which suggests they’re not going to be throwing the ball too wide, when they have that brute in there. Pape has come in as well, Harinordoquy — I think they’re going to try and develop from the Italian game.
“But we see a few weaknesses, we sat down, the backs, had a good look at them, we’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeves. We’d be quite critical of ourselves, realise there’s a lot to be done, we have to improve, training has to be sharp.”
There’s a lot of expectation on this Ireland team, but even more pressure from within, says D’Arcy.
“You’re stepping into this environment, a work ethic, and you get dragged in. No stone is left unturned, work, work, and it isn’t just stemming from Eddie, it’s the players themselves. And this is the big change, the big mental switch in this team; it’s the players taking the responsibility. We want no stone unturned — what are we doing here, why are we doing it, who’s doing it. Try, try, try, if it’s not working try something else. The work ethic is absolutely fantastic. The pressure and expectations coming from the public, that’s the beauty of sport. How boring would this be if no-one was talking about it? That’s the beauty of sport, people talking in pubs and clubs, on buses, walking to work, sending emails.
“That’s what sport is about — the public talk about it, we’ve got to block that out, concentrate on what we need to do. The big challenge for us is to enjoy the build-up, the training in there, all of that, but come Saturday night, the Croke Park factor has to end. We have to concentrate on playing France; if you’re able to use it to motivate yourself, by all means do so, but if it’s becoming a distraction you have to block it out, mentally, and just focus on the match.”