Clontarf are the reigning Division 1A champions in the AIL.
Clontarf Legend

'I don't know how Paul O'Connell knew who I was. He just said, 'Howiya, Matt?''

Clontarf captain Matt D’Arcy had a stint in the pro game with Munster.

WALKING INTO the room, Matt D’Arcy didn’t expect Munster captain Paul O’Connell to have any idea who he was.

D’Arcy hadn’t come through the usual academy route. He hadn’t been around the pro game at all until a couple of months before.

Instead, the then 24-year-old had shone in the All-Ireland League for Clontarf. D’Arcy was fresh from a player of the year-acclaimed season in the AIL when Anthony Foley asked him to come on trial at Munster in the summer of 2015. The clever centre did enough to earn a six-month stay with the province.

O’Connell was away with Ireland at the World Cup for D’Arcy’s first few months in Limerick but when he returned with the hamstring injury that would prove career-ending, they got a chance to meet. It was one of a few subtle things that D’Arcy brought back to Clontarf from that foray into the pro game.

“Paul was doing a bit of rehab and I don’t know how he knew who I was, but I walked in and he just said, ‘Howiya, Matt?’ Something like that is a small touch,” explains D’Arcy.

“He obviously had asked if there was anyone new coming in and they told him about me and he was able to say my name when he met me. Stuff like that in terms of leadership I would try to take onboard.”

As the captain of Clontarf these days, D’Arcy gets why those little gestures are important. He has embraced the captaincy role and enjoyed success in it, lifting the Energia AIL Division 1A trophy back in May after beating Terenure.

munsteros-matt-darcy D'Arcy during his time with Munster.

The new AIL season starts in two weekends’ time and D’Arcy has been thinking about Tarf claiming the club’s fourth title. The focus for Andy Wood’s side is on getting even better rather than just trying to repeat what they did last season.

They’ve made some sharp signings in the likes of JJ O’Dea and Ben Murphy from Old Wesley, although there is one big name on the list of departures – Matt’s twin brother, Adrian. The combative flanker has been a talisman for Tarf and will be missed.

“That will be a weird one because I have played with him since I was five,” says Matt.

“We’re hoping to involve him a bit off the field because he has won three AILs and can offer that experience. I missed the first AIL [in 2014], I was in Australia. We have a joke that I’ll keep playing until I tie with him!”

Last season was a resurgent one for the AIL. The parish pride was very much back as clubs put the pandemic behind them. And the quality of rugby was excellent.

“The way it worked out without those [provincial] A competitions being on, there was a lot more buzz around the league and a lot more of those players playing in the league,” says D’Arcy.

“Everyone raised the standard, there were lots of communities realising how good those games can be. The sponsors did a great job and there seems to be a great buzz around it again.”

The quality of the rugby in the AIL is a product of the levels of professionalism in clubs like Clontarf. They’re largely amateur players, of course, but there is no shortage of commitment and diligence.

matt-darcy-and-adrian-darcy-celebrate-with-the-trophy Twin brothers Matt and Adrian D'Arcy lift last season's AIL trophy. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

“It would take people by surprise the level of detail and how close to a professional set-up it is,” says D’Arcy.

Like others, Clontarf use analysis software to break their games down for individual and team reviews. They have GPS trackers that feed into a player welfare app that allows the club’s S&C coaches to manage the squad’s training workload. Very few stones are left unturned.

D’Arcy credits head coach Wood with pushing the team tactically too. New Zealand native Wood was a tough-as-nails lock or back row in his own playing days, which included playing for Tarf in their 2003 and 2006 AIL final defeats. As a coach, Wood has led the club into six AIL finals, winning three of them.

“He was an old-school player and that probably came through in his early years of coaching,” says D’Arcy.

“But he has adapted, he’s all about player welfare and we’re not killing each other during the week unless we really have to. It’s very tactical, modern rugby. The detail is unbelievable and his rugby brain has really come through.”

Wood’s coaching has been useful for young guns like Joey Carbery, who have played plenty of AIL rugby for Tarf on their way to bigger things in the professional game.

D’Arcy balances his rugby commitments with his full-time job in Banjoman Films, the production company he co-owns.

He took a sabbatical from the day job back in 2015 for that stint with Munster, one he reflects on as enjoyable. D’Arcy didn’t get a full senior cap but featured regularly for the Munster A team.

matt-darcy Matt D’Arcy at the launch of Energia All-Ireland League for the 2022/23 season. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“What stuck out massively to me was – and not that people can’t get the opportunity when they’re a bit older – but how important it is to get in when you’re a bit younger,” says D’Arcy, who has also played for Leinster A and captained the Ireland Clubs team.

“I was lucky enough to work with Aled Walters [the S&C specialist who went on to win the World Cup with South Africa] at that time and managing my workload was a big thing because I wasn’t used to doing two sessions a day at that intensity. If you’ve come through the academy, you probably are used to that. The actual rugby side of things, the step-up wasn’t as big as I would have thought.”

When his time with Munster finished, D’Arcy didn’t have any thoughts of continuing to chase a pro rugby career. He saw friends and former team-mates who lived uncertain lives as they scrabbled for contracts every season or two and felt that it wasn’t for him.

“I was in a good position because I own my own business with my best friend. I just said to myself that if I wasn’t getting to play in a big match in Thomond Park or the Aviva that it probably wasn’t what I wanted to do.

“I had this business that was successful and I really enjoyed, then a team playing a high level of rugby in the AIL, so that was the better option for me.”

He does think there are lots of guys in the AIL now who could take that step though, while he believes that playing in the league is crucial for young prospects who are already in the academies.

“We have lads in Clontarf who are in the provincial set-up and getting a taste there but also playing good senior rugby in the AIL. In a year or two down the line, they’ll have had the best of both worlds.”

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