'We not going to get into that, we're miles off it'
What a difference 24 hours and a different location about one kilometre away can make. On Friday night, Andy Farrell was gloomily sat in the shadows of a poorly lit RDS media room explaining away the thrashing his inexperienced Ireland A team had been on the receiving end of from a pent-up All Blacks XV.
One night later, his demeanour couldn’t have been more different when perched on the stage of the bright and shining Aviva Stadium auditorium less than an hour after the jam-packed D4 stadium had played host to a belter of an Autumn Nations Series win over the Springboks.
We’ve been in this giddy territory before ten months out from a World Cup in France. It was 2006, in the wake of a Dublin hammering that was delivered to Jake White’s visitors, that Eddie O’Sullivan, the then-Ireland coach, was questioned in the aftermath about how his on-song team were surely capable of winning the following year’s World Cup.
We all know what happened to that fluffy hype, Ireland playing like drains the following September and failing to negotiate their pool while the Springboks regrouped to go on and win the whole shooting match and gloriously lift the golden trophy.
Here we are then, back in the same sort of situation with everyone talking excitedly about the RWC prospects of Ireland and South Africa again lurking in the trenches, ready to pounce once more. September 24 next year is the big, big Stade de France date between the two teams but there was no chit-chat from Farrell on what is now the hottest of hot topics regarding his Ireland, the world’s current No1 ranked side.
“We’re not going to get into that, we’re miles off it,” he deflected amid the fuzzy glow of a thoroughly satisfying 19-16 win over the Springboks. “There are so many things, different permutations that can happen along the way. I have no doubt that South Africa are going to get better leading into the World Cup, they are pretty good at that, getting their timing right.
“It’s a good start to our season, that’s about it. It’s nice to play them. It’s certainly nice to play them after five years to see how we’re handling the different types of pressure that they throw at us and that is great, but it’s the start to our season and we move onto next week (to Fiji).”
Seated to the right-hand side of Farrell on the top-table podium, Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton was similarly minded. “It’s a good start to the year, that’s it really. We have got to keep building, keep our performances improving. We won a Triple Crown last year but we want to do something in the Six Nations.
“The World Cup is a good bit away and we need to stay present and try and keep winning. You don’t get many chances in an Ireland jersey, you want to win when you are in one. We need to keep building and hopefully get some bodies back over the next couple of weeks with two more massive games (Australia are also on Ireland’s November dance card).”
If vaulting ahead to what might transpire ten months down the line was a conversion that Farrell wouldn’t entertain, there were plenty of details that he was much more willing to embrace. One such matter was the heavy injury toll that resulted in three Ireland players being lost to injury by the interval, but coach Farrell put a generally positive spin on the early prognosis.
“Stu (McCloskey) is a funny one. He fell awkwardly on the floor and his arm twisted in a way that they thought was something serious, but it doesn’t look as serious at this moment of time. There is a bit of feeling that is coming back into his arm and hand. We will see how that progresses, we don’t quite know.
“Tadhg (Furlong) just jarred his ankle. It didn’t seem to be too serious and Conor (Murray) felt his groin when he made that break (following a first-half lineout).”
Sum it all up then, Andy, what did you learn from a performance that was enough to deservedly down the reigning world champions? “A lot. That we have got resilience, that we have got guts, character. We wanted the Test, we wanted the different type of Test match. That was a proper, old-fashioned slinging match to see where we are at in that regard. Wow, I thought the character of the side was immense for all sorts of reasons.
“You start with coming into camp and a lot of them being undone as far as minutes are concerned. Never mind it being our first game of the season, it’s some of the lads’ first game of the season and some of them have not played for three, four weeks etc. But they come into camp every single time and they get to work and they certainly fill me with confidence every single time they come.
“You would think that Hugo (Keenan) and Jamison (Gibson-Park) had been playing for the last five, six weeks – that is because of the culture, the attitude, and the want to get better in the side is infectious day in, day out. I thought we showed fantastic spirit. Having said that, South Africa are a hell of a side and it was a hell of a Test match and it could have gone either way.
“The character that we showed was fitting for the twelve days that we have had together and with the injuries that we had, one or two before the match and the Ireland A game yesterday. It was a different week, something that we adapted to and I’m unbelievably proud of them, of how they have applied themselves.
“In the first half, we gave them a few opportunities to kick to the corner with our discipline but the confidence that we got certainly as a forward pack with our maul defence stood to us for the game. Our set-piece was unbelievable and on the back of that coming out of the set-piece, our defence was immense.
“The backs complemented the forwards on the back of that as well. It was a proper Test match either way. If the result had been different for us I would have said I still felt the same way.”
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