"I knew that if I got the opportunity, I'd never let it go again" - Gordon D'Arcy
"I thought I was renegotiating my contract. And there was him telling me he was letting me go."
February 2004 was the moment Gordon D'Arcy stepped out of his own shadow and became the player his mentors and peers long believed he could be.
Not long out of secondary school [Clongowes], D'Arcy made his Leinster debut in September 1998 against Llanelli in the Heineken Cup. The Leinster team, that day, contained the likes of Reggie Corrigan, Trevor Brennan and Gabriel Fulcher. They saw off the Welsh side 33-27 but would not make it past the group stages.
"It wasn't a boyhood dream in that I didn't grow up wanting to play for Leinster. I wanted to play hurling for Wexford. There was no-one ahead of me to say, 'Oh, I want to do what they're doing'.
"I was just at home one day when I got a call from Mike Ruddock. I picked up the pay phone, at home. In this big, thick Welsh accent he said, 'Can I speak to Gordon?' I didn't know who he was and who the Leinster head coach was, at the time."
At that stage, D'Arcy had already been in training with Warren Gatland in the Ireland senior squad. He had turned down a summer tour to South Africa to concentrate on his Leaving Cert but was being closely monitored by the head honchos in Irish rugby.
"Trevor Brennan scared the hell out of me, in every game we played together. We had lads like Victor Costello too. I remember thinking, these lads might as well be my dad! But I played the same way I would have approached a schools game - everything was on, until it wasn't on."
D'Arcy played three times for Leinster in his first season and was considered a winger with huge potential. He made his Ireland debut against Romania in the 1999 World Cup and his star was very much on the rise.
Fast forward five years and D'Arcy had only added four more Ireland caps to his name. He had missed out on the 2003 World Cup squad and was starting to doubt whether he was cut out for rugby at the top level.
"If I go back to 2001," D'Arcy recalls, "Matt Williams effectively told me I had four weeks to save my Leinster contract, because he didn't believe I was fulfilling my potential. I was sitting for a coffee with him and thought I was renegotiating my contract. And there was him telling me he was letting me go."
Williams, he says, later told him he was bluffing and delivering the four-week ultimatum to see how he would react. "That started a journey of self-reflection and being more professional," he says.
"Shane Byrne had a great way of looking at it. He said, 'Being a professional is about more than getting paid'."
D'Arcy believes it took him a full three years to get up to the levels of professionalism needed to make it in the Leinster and Ireland XVs. He got a chance to prove he was ready for a proper crack at Test rugby when Brian O'Driscoll suffered a hamstring injury in January of 2004.
Gary Ella, the Leinster coach at the time, asked him, "Fancy a run at 13?" and the rest was history.
Eddie O'Sullivan followed suit for the Six Nations, a month later, and D'Arcy was paired with Kevin Maggs against France. O'Driscoll would return for that championship, which resulted in a Triple Crown, but D'Arcy retained his place in the Irish midfield and never looked back.
"It was definitely a looking glass moment as Eddie hadn't even picked me for the World Cup, six months earlier. And now he was picking him at 13 in a position I had only played two times before. But I was just in a space where I knew that if I got the opportunity, I'd never let it go again."
D'Arcy was a revelation for Ireland in that campaign and rounded it off with his first ever Test tries in a home win over Scotland that sealed the Triple Crown. He was voted Six Nations Player of the Tournament and went on to win 83 Test caps and win two Six Nations championships [including a 2009 Grand Slam] along with three European Cup and three league titles with Leinster.
Better late than never.