You don’t play 82 games for Ireland without being aware of your surroundings and where you rank among your competition, but former Ireland centre Gordon D’Arcy’s comments in today’s Irish Times represent an old-school mentality to a new wave of talent.
Like many Irish rugby observers, Gordon D’Arcy has been impressed by the performances of several Irish youngsters this season and despite the breakthrough of several academy products into provincial first teams, the 35-year-old feels that the international arena is a stage too big for many of Ireland’s brightest young talents.
“The full house at the Aviva Stadium for internationals remains the cash cow that drives the entire system and generates sponsors. That and winning,” D’Arcy said in his column.
“I don’t expect the Leinster team we saw on Saturday to be fast-tracked. We can’t afford to throw Garry Ringrose. (Josh) van der Flier or Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and promising Munster flanker Jack O’Donoghue into the Test match arena.
“There remains a clear pecking order, so they must get their exposure elsewhere.”
D’Arcy’s comments represent a mentality that has existed for so many years in Irish rugby and was often the downfall of a lot of Irish teams that showed tremendous potential. The ‘pecking order’, the idea that certain players have earned a right to a spot in the national side based on reputation, service to the game and by way of working their way up through the ranks was an attitude that plagued Irish rugby for the better part of a decade.
It was that line of thinking and mentality that led to Ireland’s worst ever performance at a World Cup, the utterly disastrous 2007 campaign led by Eddie O’Sullivan.
As former Ireland winger Denis Hickie recalled at the time:
“We’d played poorly against Namibia and the damage that did to the squad made Eddie O’Sullivan pick the team that hadn’t played that well, and the team needed to play again, forcing a lot of players not to play in that World Cup.”
Hickie’s sentiments were echoed by future Lions player Stephen Ferris who noted “O’Sullivan had virtually closed off the starting XV from the moment Leinster and Munster had been evicted from European competition more than six months earlier.”
Of course O’Sullivan’s selections had little impact on Gordon D’Arcy who started every game of a truly harrowing tournament for Ireland as the Leinster centre was a staple of O’Sullivan’s ‘pecking order’.
D’Arcy would maintain his place in this pecking order for years to come until the undeniable talent of Robbie Henshaw left Joe Schmidt no other option but to displace him from the team, with the stalwart forced to pick up reps with Leinster and the Irish Wolfhounds.
The point being, under Schmidt, things have changed within Irish rugby and a player that blossoms and shows potential is allowed the opportunity to excel at the highest level, regardless of experience.
It happened with Henshaw last year and Ulster centre Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier should be afforded similar opportunities this year, not because of where they fall in the pecking order, but because they’ve been the best players in the country in their respective positions.
There’s a reason Ireland have won back-to-back Six Nations over the last two years, and it’s because of Schmidt’s ability to identify strength and weaknesses, in both his own side and the opposition.
Ideally, many Irish fans would like to see a backrow consisting of CJ Stander, van der Flier and Sean O’Brien with a centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Stuart McCloskey to boot. Jamie Heaslip’s role as vice-captain now complicates the former, at least in the time being, but the latter pairing of Henshaw and McCloskey is arguably the form pairing in the country when you account for Henshaw’s form at the World Cup and McCloskey’s sparkling start to this season.
D’Arcy, like many of his past teammates were a product of their environment, and for a long time they enjoyed tremendous success because of that environment. They were loyal to the provinces throughout their careers but as Ferris noted they had good reason to if they played for Leinster or Munster.
Schmidt has abolished this notion of a pecking order and Ireland have excelled because of it, so if van der Flier and McCloskey are in the Ireland side in the Six Nations opener against Wales, you’d best believe its because of their form and not because they sit atop of some pecking order.