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'It's a word every coach would like to keep on using'

By Liam Heagney

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Rugby currently at the Aviva Stadium is like groundhog day. Moments frozen in time that you see over and over these past few months when reporting on the behind closed doors matches at the ground. Take the small ads peppered on the walls in the toilet facilities.

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They are adverts promoting tickets for a Leinster-Munster match that didn’t take place last April and for Irish passport renewals so that you can jet off on your holidays. Except you can’t. Government advice is for no non-essential travel to happen, while there is also no prospect any time soon of fans getting in to watch a Leinster-Munster match of any kind.   

The frozen in time observations aren’t limited to just there, though. It extends to matters on the pitch as well. The Andy Farrell tenure might be just six Ireland matches old but there is a groundhog routine about what has so far evolved. 

Take block one: following the stuttering getting-to-know-you maiden outing win over Scotland, Wales were brushed aside in Dublin only for the encouragement taken from that victory to get undermined by a bruising away defeat to England.

Block two of the Farrell era played out similarly last month, a handsome home win over Italy rendered irrelevant by the lacerations sustained in the road on Paris with Ireland way off the pace against France. 

Now we have kicked off block three in the same established way, Wales hammered 32-9 in the home Nations Cup opener, but the stalking fear is that the value of this latest Aviva Stadium success could be made redundant by another sobering away defeat, this time back over in England. 

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The groundhog day cycle – encouraging home win devalued soon after by demoralising away loss – must be broken if Farrell really is to make progress nearing the end of his first year in charge.  

Ireland at Twickenham has been a torrid misadventure lately. 57-15 was the damning count when Farrell last travelled there as defence coach to Joe Schmidt and while on paper last February’s 24-12 scoreline flattered Farrell, by then the promoted boss, an 80th-minute try massaged the result of a contest where Ireland were 17-0 down at the break and battered. 

The warning coming away from Friday night’s latest win over the Welsh was that Ireland can’t leave scores behind if they are to cause England a headache. Their 16-6 interval lead should have been far more lavish for a performance where possession and territory were so dominated. 

Farrell accepted as much, volunteering the need for Ireland to be more clinical if they are to stand a genuine chance at Twickenham. “First half possession and territory it wasn’t a fair reflection. After some real good direct attacks, our breakdown was pretty impressive but after linebreaks, we got a little bit cluttered. 

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“I thought we could have converted a few more opportunities. We need to be more clinical when try-scoring opportunities are there to be taken. I reckon there were three or four left there.”

Dominant isn’t a word usually in Ireland’s vocabulary. It was relevant versus the Welsh but repeating it with England in opposition is another thing entirely. “It’s a word every coach would like to keep on using… how do you get to be dominant? 

“Your set-piece has to be good and I thought first half you couldn’t ask for better. Our scrum was really abrasive and our defensive lineout was better as well… and again to be dominant you need a good defence and it was physical, we got off the line and we’re pleased. Any side that goes away from the Aviva without a try you have got to be pleased with that.”

The project player process, whereby foreigners can qualify for Ireland after 36 months residency, was very evident, South African Quinn Roux and New Zealander James Lowe providing the only tries.  Roux came in late for his first start in 21 months, Iain Henderson missing with an unspecified medical issue, while Jacob Stockdale was another late cry-off. Farrell hasn’t ruled either out of Twickenham involvement.

“They won’t be long term. Jacob flagged a sore calf during the week. We thought it would settle down and it did, but there was a scan Thursday and there was a little bit of something there. We think he could be available next week. Iain Henderson had a medical issue. Speaking to the medics we expect him to be okay next week.”

The main injury chat, though, in the lead-in to Autumn Nations Cup round two will be the state of Johnny Sexton’s hamstring. The skipper is giving himself every chance. “It doesn’t feel too serious. Just very frustrating. 

“I thought initially I was going to be able to run it off but unfortunately not. I will probably get a scan and see if there is any little damage done but I’m still hopeful for next week,” he said, adding how pleasing it was to see Ireland bouncing back from the loss in Paris. 

“We are very proud of ourselves with the result. Some aspects of our performance were outstanding but we can do better and need to be better going to Twickenham.”

They must be or the groundhog day-like cycle of a comfortable home win followed by poor away loss under Farrell won’t change.  

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