Gordon D’Arcy feels the controversy swirling around Billy Vunipola will be an exacting test of the culture that exists in the Saracens dressing room — and that Saturday’s European clash with Munster will deliver the results.
The English Premiership side has endured a bumpy ride into this weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final thanks to questions about their adherence to the league’s salary cap and Vunipola’s liking of the controversial tweet from Israel Folau which castigated, among others, gay people.
Admonished with little more than a slap on the wrists by his club, Vunipola is a key player for Mark McCall’s Saracens as they close in one the business end of a season where they are again in the hunt for two major trophies.
“It’s hard because when you are in a team and there is that external focus, by which I mean something that isn’t traditionally there and is beyond the pressure of individual or team performances, the club is under pressure and that is unnecessary pressure. There is a huge hindsight bias with this,” said D’Arcy. “If it is dealt with by the players, if they acknowledge it... and this is where you talk about the strength of a team culture, this is where that becomes really, really important.
“From Saracens’ perspective, if this has been dealt with internally — and by that I don’t mean that he has been called into an office and scolded — if he has dealt with this with his peers, that is the most important thing here.
“You need to have absolute trust in the guy standing on your left and on your right when you go out onto that field. If there is anything eating away at the trust you will see it in the momentum swings.
“If something happens, not that Saracens would capitulate, but if they stop and look at each other then that is a huge opportunity for Munster.”
There remains the chance of an All-Irish final featuring D’Arcy’s former province Leinster. He has three Heineken Cup medals from his own playing days and so knows what it takes to win this competition.
And he knows something about the brouhaha that comes with a meeting of Munster and Leinster at the back end of these seasons. On the losing side at Lansdowne Road in 2006, he was part of a side that reversed the tables three years later at Croke Park and he believes that there is every chance that we may be witness to a first ever Leinster-Munster decider in Newcastle next month.
“Once you get to a semi-final all bets are off, particularly in a Champions Cup.
“In a World Cup or even a Six Nations it is a bit different in that pressure can count in the earlier rounds, but in the Champions Cup that really starts in the semi-finals.
“That stage of the competition can do funny things to teams. It did it to Leinster a few times. It took us 11 years to get past the quarter-final stage — for me, anyway — and then you get to this point and one of two things happens. You either stand up to that pressure and do what you want to do, or you kind of collapse in around it.
“All the four teams that are there have a pedigree, so it makes it very interesting.
“Unfortunately for Munster, the home advantage makes a huge difference, but when you are a player you can always use that as an extra motivating factor.”