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Andy Farrell's Ireland transformation ain't 'skin' deep

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

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It’s been quite the twelve months in the making of Ireland coach Andy Farrell as a genuine Test team boss in his own right. Let’s be honest – he spent the initial part of his tenure faffing about as Joe-Lite, as a specialist defence coach not fully sure how he could best step up to escape the legacy of Joe Schmidt and mould the Ireland team in his own way. Things had gotten worryingly worse before they got better. 

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The delayed conclusion to the 2020 Six Nations had ended in calamity, Farrell’s newly appointed skipper Johnny Sexton very publicly blowing a fuse with his withering reaction to getting substituted in the title-losing loss in France.

What followed in Autumn Nations Cup didn’t quicken the pulse either, one of the bluntest ever non-attacking performances versus England followed by a woundingly poor effort by the stiffs when they were given their chance against the minnows of Georgia. That was certainly one behind-closed-doors encounter every Irish fan was glad to have missed. 

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Then came the dark ages of the brutal start to the 2021 Six Nations. Lame-duck performances led to defeats in the opening two matches, something that hadn’t happened to Ireland since the long-ago desperate days of the ill-fated Brian Ashton era in 1998. 

The stressful lay of the land hinted that here was another Englishman who was about to succumb to the difficulties in getting his message across but desperate times call for desperate measures and the transformation since then has been wondrous – nine wins on the bounce before the other week’s lost shootout in Paris, multiple players coming on in leaps and bounds, and the infusion of a potent style of attacking play that originally wasn’t thought possible with Mike Catt labouring poorly in his role as a Farrell Ireland assistant. 

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Of course, Farrell is still Farrell, someone the Irish public still doesn’t really know at all despite him living and working here for six years. You won’t ever find him doing media outside of what he is contractually obliged to do during a Test campaign, the sort of more laidback engagement that would paint a picture as to who he really is. You’ll never find him either popping up on the club lunch circuit to give the grassroots a lift in the way that Schmidt would frequently spin-off down the highways and byways to attend multiple fund-raising gatherings. It’s simply not Farrell’s style, pandemic or no pandemic.

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We’re being somewhat petulant here. After all, those activities are essentially fripperies of a role where the most important job will always be getting results on the pitch. This Farrell has lately done with a swagger, the coach demonstrating the invaluable knack for taking an Ireland player and visibly improving what he has to offer to the team. 

Jamison Gibson-Park is the prime example. For years he was dithering away as a Leinster sub, adding to the ample evidence from his bench existence in New Zealand that he would only ever be a 20-minute man at most. How wrong we were!

Having qualified under residency, the Kiwi has become an enthusiastically energetic talisman for Farrell’s Ireland where the onerous load has been lessened on out-half Johnny Sexton by playing so much more off of the nine in a French type of way. Whatever about Ireland creating in the opposition half, look at the empowering adventurous way they now seek to play their way out of their own half without the over-reliance on the boredom-inducing Conor Murray box kick. It’s certainly fun to watch.

The uptick approvingly doesn’t end there. Take some of the players inherited from the immensely structured Schmidt era: Andrew Porter is another transformed operator having switched to loosehead and gotten more games, Tadhg Beirne has become indispensable compared to his in/out experience under Farrell’s predecessor, Caelan Doris is smashing it on both sides of the ball after an unconvincing start, Josh van der Flier is no longer simply a chop tackler but an all-court operator, and powerhouse Bundee Aki is now applying subtle handling touches that no one thought possible. 

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Even the old dog Peter O’Mahony, who skippers the team versus Italy this Sunday, has been imbued by hunger to get on the ball, something that he left to others in the Schmidt era. Then there are newbies, the likes of Hugo Keenan who epitomises how Farrell has an eye for putting trust in an unheralded player and taking him many levels above. Mack Hansen is another example, while even James Lowe defensively is not the liability he was a year ago.  

What gives? Simon Zebo, one of those who suffered in the suffocating Schmidt era, summed it up nicely on the Le French Rugby Podcast when he recently said: “I won’t bash on Joe or anything. Andy is really attack-minded. It’s a different style, a different coach, a different outlook on the game. He wants players to go out and express themselves. He wants the wingers to get their hands on the ball as much as possible and score tries.

The atmosphere around camp is a lot more relaxed. The players are really enjoying each other’s company and that is as important as playing well or training well. You can see there is a strength in the bond in the players up there which wasn’t there in the past when I was up there.”

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This weekend Michael Lowry is the latest cab off the Farrell rank and something the coach had to say on Friday afternoon was indeed emblematic of the Ireland squad that is now thriving in a very different way to the success achieved under Schmidt.  

“He is comfortable in his own skin,” reckoned the coach about the wee Ulster full-back, the latest new player to be given an opportunity to shine. “He is able to be himself under extreme pressure. It is tough for someone to come into camp when you are someone who hasn’t got a cap or you are new to the group to understand how we play, to pick up the new calls, to learn how all the intricacies within the group, within a backline, within a back three etc.

“He is unbelievably thorough in his preparation and therefore he is comfortable in his own skin and able to play and perform at a high level of competition at training as we have seen time and time again for Ulster – so we believe he is ready. 

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“The lads who have been selected have earned the right. You look at James Lowe, he was up to speed straight away (this past week), fitted in and has started to add to how we want to play the game. That was evident straight away in his first session. Mack Hansen has done that. Craig Casey has done that. Ryan Baird has done that. Michael Lowry has done that. That is the type of pressure that you put them under and we think these guys deserve a chance by showing the rest of the group that they are ready and we expect a performance as well.”

All are indeed very comfortable in their own skin watching how they express themselves on the pitch, a label you wouldn’t have applied to players in the constantly-walking-on eggshells Schmidt era. For sure it has been quite the transformative twelve months for Farrell, going from unimpressive novice boss to someone who is now pressing multiple right buttons. Good on him. In Andy we now trust. 

What the coach now needs on Sunday, though, is further evidence that Joey Carbery definitely has what it takes to rival Sexton for the No10 shirt so that Ireland aren’t left short at the 2023 World Cup in case of an out-half emergency as brutally happened at the last two finals. After that, the to-do list must involve ramping up the lack of depth at prop. Porter and Tadhg Furlong each going 73 minutes in Paris can’t be in the script every week in the relentless era of a supposed 23-man game.  

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