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FEATURE Four changes Farrell made to reset Ireland on a path to glory

Four changes Farrell made to reset Ireland on a path to glory
5 months ago

After the 2019 World Cup, France got Fabien Galthie, New Zealand got Ian Foster, Wales got Wayne Pivac and Ireland got a bloke who took a bullet from the RFU.

You would have struggled to find a queue of Irish people seeking to talk up Andy Farrell then, and by the time Covid interrupted his inaugural year in charge, disillusionment was spreading quicker than the coronavirus.

Six wins from your opening 11 games can have that effect, the manner of a defeat to Wales in the opening round of the 2021 Six Nations prompting the Irish Independent to declare that ‘Farrell has four games to save his job’.

A week later came another narrow defeat – at home to France – and another opinion piece from the same writer: “Apologists for the current regime will no doubt insist that a revival is imminent when we hammer Italy but the manager’s (sic) future should rest on Ireland’s result against England.”

Andy Farrell
Farrell has presided over a remarkable 31 victories in his last 34 Tests with Ireland (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Well, Ireland did beat England, and since then they have beaten everyone else in the world’s top 10, New Zealand twice on their 2022 summer tour, South Africa twice, France twice, England twice.

After spending most of 2023 as the No.1 ranked side in the world, they are now two-fifths of the way towards a second successive Grand Slam, and Farrell, after losing five of his first 11 games in charge, has since overseen a run of 31 victories from 34, landing him the gig as British and Irish Lions coach.

Pivac and Foster, meanwhile, are now in Japan and New Zealand mulling over unenjoyable reigns. England, Australia, South Africa, Italy and Argentina have also changed coaches. For Ireland the change has been within Farrell. He’s a much different coach now than he was three years ago.

Here’s how.


The turning point for many was the 2021 England game in an empty Aviva Stadium, the day Keith Earls scored a brilliant try off a set-piece. In reality, though, the bigger change came later that autumn, when Farrell ripped up his selection policy, and chose 12 Leinster players to start against New Zealand.

The impact was immediate – a 29-20 victory over the All Blacks – inspired by a couple of brave calls, Jamison Gibson-Park getting the nod over Conor Murray, Andrew Porter relocating from tighthead to his original home as a loosehead.

Those specific choices weren’t as eye catching as the bigger call, though. Incredibly there was only one player each from Connacht, Munster and Ulster in his starting XV, a pattern that hasn’t changed much since.

Jamison Gibson_Park
The speed of service brought by Jamison Gibson-Park elevated Ireland’s game to greater heights (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

You can see why. Leinster, for 15 years now, have been Ireland’s leading team, winners of four European Cups, runner-up in a further three finals, and Farrell saw the logic of transferring the rhythm, structure and cohesion of their play onto the international stage, selecting 10 or more Leinster players to start in eight of Ireland’s 10 matches this season, the exceptions being the World Cup warm-ups against Samoa and Italy.

Other countries don’t have this continuity. England’s starting XV on Saturday contained players from seven different clubs. Wales, despite having the same number of regional teams as Ireland, also selected players from seven clubs, France from six.

Scotland picked 10 of Glasgow’s players, and with just two clubs on the SRU payroll, should be able to have the same familiarity as Ireland. Yet they certainly haven’t had the same results, Ireland winning nine of 10 games this season, eight out of eight last season, nine out of 11 in 2021/22 – a sharp contrast to the return of six wins from 11 in Farrell’s first 12 months.


Those disjointed displays in 2020 and early in 2021 weren’t just down to his team selections, though. Early on Farrell placed too much emphasis on fixing the culture and atmosphere within the group at the expense of Ireland’s style of play.

Still, there was a good reason for this. Under his predecessor, Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s camp had become a joyless place in the New Zealander’s final year, results slipping alarmingly from the highs of 2018, when he won a Grand Slam and an away series in Australia.

I’ve never met anyone who can read the mood of a squad better than Andy. He has a knack of saying the right thing at the right time.

Yet it wasn’t just the scorelines which hindered morale. Schmidt’s background, prior to going full-time into coaching, was as a schoolteacher. Come 2019, many players felt they had returned to the classroom. In contrast Farrell, from the age of 16, has spent his working life in dressing rooms, first in rugby league, then in union.

“I’ve never met anyone who can read the mood of a squad better than Andy,” said Warren Gatland, who worked with the Ireland coach on the 2013 and 2017 Lions tours. “He has a knack of saying the right thing at the right time.”

He was three games into his reign when Covid arrived in 2020, the subsequent lockdowns leaving him and his players idle for nearly six months. By the time they returned, teething problems remained, particularly in attack, where Farrell’s loosely explained ‘heads-up rugby’ philosophy was not being successfully carried out on the pitch.

A few changes were then made behind the scenes. Mick Kearney returned as team manager and brought all the wisdom, charm and calmness of his 60 years with him, alleviating the logistical load Farrell had to carry.

Then there was the introduction of Gary Keegan. A sports psychologist, Keegan’s CV is the most decorated in Irish sport and stretches across several sports: Gaelic football, hurling, boxing, sailing. Ireland’s players ceased talking about long-term goals from this moment on.

Gary Keegan
Many Ireland players have praised the impact of mental skills coach Gary Keegan on their performances (Photo Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The final piece of the jigsaw was newly appointed forwards coach, Paul O’Connell.

Half the squad had played with him; the remaining half were in awe, some afraid. From O’Connell came a Schmidt-like obsession with ruck speed, and the need to get the technical aspects of this aspect of the game right. Ireland had more or less perfected that in Schmidt’s first five years in charge but by his last year, and then Farrell’s first, the quality had slipped.

Under O’Connell’s insistence it returned to pre-2019 levels. Two-second ruck ball became a thing again; and Ireland’s attack began to function at a level we hadn’t seen in years.

This is the bit Farrell deserves most credit for as he became much more hands on post-Covid with Ireland’s attack, the faster ruck ball facilitating his vision of Ireland producing swarms of attack.

Significantly, he stopped Johnny Sexton monopolising the controls, Tadhg Furlong, Bundee Aki and Andrew Porter regularly stepping in as first receiver, thereby keeping opposing defences guessing.

Yet despite being heavily criticised in his first 12 months, Farrell didn’t seek to take credit for the upgrade in Ireland’s attack, a measure of someone comfortable within his own skin.

Those soft skills didn’t stop there. Calvin Nash told a story last week of how Farrell noted the winger’s nervousness ahead of his Six Nations debut against France. “I was up the walls with anxiety,” Nash said. Farrell sat him down. He must have remembered his own experiences breaking through at Wigan, just after he became a father at 16, the awareness that he wasn’t just playing for himself now but also a young family.

At some point, Farrell would have told his teenage self it was make-or-break, a career in sport or one in joinery. He learned how to trust himself then. Now he teaches others to do the same. “Don’t get in the way of yourself,” he told Nash. The winger didn’t, playing well as Ireland romped to a record win over the French.


The best quality a coach possesses are his eyes. Running a dressing room is all well and good but unless you have good players inside it, you won’t win anything. Farrell has, partly because of what he inherited in Ireland – a functioning conveyor belt, a system where all his players are based at home. But a coach still needs to be able to identify a player.

Look at what he has done. Mack Hansen was barely six months into life in Ireland when Farrell plucked him from the semi-detached house he was sharing with two other Connacht players in Galway, to start the 2022 Six Nations. He hasn’t looked back.

Mack Hansen
Mack Hansen has scored nine tries in 21 Tests and brought a dynamism to Ireland’s attack (Photo Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

Nor has Porter since he was asked to relocate across the front row, upgrading from Tadhg Furlong’s understudy into a Number One, in every sense of the word.

Reputations have a limited impact in the coach’s mind. James Ryan was vice-captain but Iain Henderson showed better form in the World Cup, earning his promotion for the key matches in that tournament.

But the coach’s biggest success has been Gibson-Park, who was number two scrum-half at Leinster when Farrell made him number one with Ireland. Other fringe players – Kieran Treadwell, Tom O’Toole, Jeremy Loughman – were also upgraded to the Ireland squad even though they were second, or in some cases, third choices with their club.

The reason, each time, was the same, the coach wanting fitter, more skilful operators who were able to play the fast-paced game that he had witnessed first hand in 2019 when Ireland lost to Japan.


Japan was a formative experience. The Brave Blossoms played with both passion and panache in that tournament, Ireland incapable of keeping up to speed with a team who delivered wave upon wave of attacks, based on incredible fitness levels and a gameplan which suited their physique.

Farrell’s philosophy, essentially, is a copycat of Japan’s, albeit with bigger men.

Against France, the extra work rate was notable in Ireland’s defence, reinforcing the quiet belief that the Leinster players are good at sharing information with players from rival provinces.

There has also been a glance over the shoulder of Stuart Lancaster’s homework when he was at Leinster and more recently the defensive system Lancaster’s successor, Jacques Nienaber, operates under.

That was a concern of Ireland fans coming into this tournament, that Leinster’s players, having had to learn a new defensive language under their new South African coach, would then have to unlearn it and revert to Simon Easterby’s methods with Ireland.

Coaches, however, are open minded, never afraid to nick a good idea. Against France, the extra work rate was notable in Ireland’s defence, reinforcing the quiet belief that the Leinster players are good at sharing information with players from rival provinces.

It’s all working out. Ireland are Europe’s form team to the extent back-to-back Grand Slams, last achieved by France in 1997 and 1998, is probable rather than possible.

“Time for Farrell to Brexit,” screamed the headline in 2021.

Instead he took back control.


Chris 151 days ago

They have some outstanding forwards
The weakish backs have been patched up with kiwis
Great coaching job from mungo Fazza

cryff 154 days ago

Really interesting piece. There are so many layers to Ireland’s current success. Farrell has been the catalyst but there so many different parts contributing to it.

Bikahs 154 days ago

On the hype train again . Let's hype up Ireland and then see them choke where it matters most . 0 world cups . Thats the only thing that matters .

Stephen 155 days ago

Of course it’s a great help if you target S. Hemisphere players and make them Irish.

Roger 156 days ago

The irony is that Scotland has made it to a Semi Final 1991. France has made it to three finals, 1987, 1999, 2011. Wales made it to Semis three times in 1987, 2011 and 2019. England has won the title in 2003. And Italy hasn't progressed into the playoffs ever, but who is checking. And yet Ireland never gotten past the Quarter-Final. Why is that? Because each year they play the RWC, they constantly pressure themselves to make it past it and it is obviously too much for them. Also like last year they figured they would win the World Cup, they forgot they had to get past their biggest hurdle yet, the Quarter Final. And I almost got the impression Jacques Nienaber didn't put too much store in the Ireland game because he knew from 2019 that you can afford to lose one game and still win the World Cup. Also he knew that if Ireland win they would have to face New Zealand. Which so far they haven't shown to be effective.

So what will Andy Farrell do to show them to be worthy of World Cup title? Not sure but he is top quality coach yet somehow he hasn't yet been able to top the likes of SBs and ABs. RE and JN have got the better of him when they need to. They haven't won every game but they have won where it matters most. One wonders if AF isn't really focussed on the WC be cause he figures he won't win it. Or maybe his guys haven't got the endurance to go all the way.

I also wonder if the Six Nations is a good litmus test for Ireland? Because currently Italy are average, France seem to have lost whatever mojo they had going into the WC. Wales are also average right now. England are good but are temperamental. Scotland have shown themselves to be good quality and yet got beaten by France, do they have the endurance?

And if France are average then usually Ireland haven't got much resistance to win it. Do they have a play off system? Or do teams win Six Nations only on log points?

Roger 156 days ago

And yet he still couldn't get them past their Quarter Final psychological barrier. He needs to figure that one out.

The Late News 156 days ago

Top article Garry!

Bob Marler 156 days ago

Altogether now:

Ireland will win the World Cup

Rob 156 days ago

Ryan wasn’t dropped on form, he had a wrist injury and was rested in the Scotland match but not dropped from the 23 as it was seen as must win at the time, then he had to fly home to have a scan after agrevating the injury when he came off the bench.

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