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Rugby's ruthless run-in: 'No-one remembers the team that comes second'

Former Ulster fullback Adam D’Arcy gives us an insight into the “ruthless” run-in that will make or break many careers.

Paul O'Connell in training with Munster at U.C.C today.
Paul O'Connell in training with Munster at U.C.C today.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

ADAM D’ARCY OF Bristol, and formerly Ulster, gives his take on the brutal yet fulfilling final months of the season:

IT’S A LONG JOURNEY. It began in the warmth of early July 2013, meandered through the mud, wet and darkness of winter, and now is set to blossom like an oriental lily as spring shines down upon us.

For the European rugby player, we are now fast approaching the most important stretch of a long and arduous season, where championships are won and lost, and the piercing threat of relegation looms for teams nervously sitting at the rear of the competition table.

There have been injuries, dips in forms, postponed games, good days and bad, but from this moment on, all that is deemed largely irrelevant. It’s about peaking at the right time, having all players in your squad fit and injury free, and endorsing a fresh approach to a part of the season that poses different questions than those you may have answered during the course of the year.

During this time the role of both players, management, and coaching staff are paramount in ensuring that teams give themselves the best opportunity to perform. Everyone must be prepared both physically and mentally for the sudden death games where one mistake can mean an early holiday.

The coach has to know his best 15-23 players, and has to play them. During the course of the season he has juggled blooding young players with managing the workload of the elder statesmen, making sure everyone has a fair opportunity to lay their cards on the table and put their best foot forward.

But now is the time to be ruthless, to pick a team and stick with it, as the more familiar with each other and time on the pitch together in the lead up to the playoffs will give a side more confidence of a strong performance.

Adam D'Arcy tackled by Casey Laulala and Conor Murray D'Arcy in action against Munster in 2012. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As players we are aware that this is the case, and while as painful as it is watching games from the stands that you have worked so hard to be a part of, it’s part and parcel of being a professional rugby player. You have to continue to train hard and uphold the squad mentality, as at any time you can be called upon to replace an injured teammate, and if you’re not prepared, look out.

Like Munster, Leinster, and Ulster, who are still in contention in both the Heineken and RaboDirect Pro12, here at Bristol we too are battling on two fronts, both in the English Championship and the British and Irish Cup. This again reiterates the importance of the strength of the squad and the management and coaching staff’s ability to select sides that are both strong and fresh to give us every opportunity to bring home both trophies.

Sometimes at this part of the season it can all get a little like groundhog day, as you find yourself reluctantly going through the motions at training, and your mind starts to wander to where you might be in a couple of months time. “I’ve heard good things about Croatia, and I have always wanted to go to Turkey” are conversations now being heard in the team room, and it’s easy to get sidetracked from the ultimate goal you and your teammates set out to achieve at the start of the season, to win a championship.

These thoughts and actions have to be eliminated, training sessions need to be adapted, given new life so that individuals aren’t mentally drained and exhausted from performing the same old drill week in week out.

At Bristol, we’ve just returned from a five-day camp in Portugal. Training in the sunshine and spending time together outside of the rugby club where we spend most of our days has freshened us up for the important run into the playoffs. These away trips are being employed more often by sides, like Saracens, who jetted off to New York after their win against Harlequins at the weekend. It’s something different to look forward to, and as a player it gives you that extra boost, knowing that your hard work and performances will be rewarded by your club.

Tactically, the coaching staff have to embrace change and endorse a fresh approach to their game plan at this time of the season as well. I’m not talking about drastically ripping up the foundation of play that’s served a team so well through the year, but an introduction of a couple of new plays, to keep opposing teams guessing.

Come the semi-final and final it may be a team that you have already played 3 or 4 times already, so to have something up your sleeve that they haven’t seen before, which could be pivotal during the course of a sudden death match.

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Ryan Jones and Quintin Geldenhuys Bristol Rugby have signed former Wales captain Ryan Jones for next season. Source: matteo_ciambelli

As a player, our role during this stage of the season is much more mental than it is physical. In the several months prior, especially in pre-season, we have put our body through endless pain, gaining fitness and strength to make sure our performances are consistent throughout the season.

Physically, we have made all the gains we can get, and our time in the gym is more about maintaining our fitness and strength, rather than improving it. We spend more time on the pitch at this time, knowing our game plan inside out and training in as many ‘on field’ scenarios as we can. The emphasis is on our mental strength.

While this stage of the season is extremely exciting and we anticipate the enormity of the task confronting us, it’s also the time when new signings are announced for the following season. It’s hard to focus on competing in a crucial play off match when at the back of your mind you know you may not have your position this time next year.

Like selection, it’s all part of the game, and like your future holiday plans, it has to be forgotten and you remain focused on the here and now. You have what could be a once in a career chance to be remembered as a title winner, and that will leave a larger legacy than the amount of games you play next year.

No one remembers the team that comes second.

– @adamdarcy played 54 times for Ulster from 2010 to 2013. He is currently with English Championship side Bristol.

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About the author:

Adam D'Arcy  / Former Ulster fullback, now with Bristol Rugby.

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