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FEATURE Old habits die hard but Farrell's Ireland must embrace favourites' tag

Old habits die hard but Farrell's Ireland must embrace favourites' tag
5 months ago

As a nation, we Irish are still getting our heads around this favourites deal. Aside from some boxers, cyclists and blue moon trips to major footballing tournaments, we often pride ourselves on the rare and wonderful, and point out that so many class athletes are immersed in GAA. Happy with our lot, yet yearning for more. That sustained us for about a century on the world stage.

The All Blacks always had this lore to them. Legend telling of a nation obsessed with only one sport and able to rely on rugby strands enshrined in their D.N.A. Up in Ireland, we have a team that is building something special of their own. They would still need to win a Triple Crown, over the next month, to secure successive Six Nations Grand Slams. It is no longer fanciful to put your name next to such words.

Andy Farrell and his players are not shy in saying they want to win every game. Driven by the carefully chosen words of their coach, however, they rarely, if ever, come across as dismissive. Farrell made 11 changes to his match-day squad for the visit of Italy then spent much of his press briefing insisting that he was not taking them lightly.

Dan Sheehan
Hooker Dan Sheehan scored two tries and might have had a hat-trick in a one-sided Ireland win (Photo Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Ahead of the match, at pains to say it, as it could come across “arrogant”, Virgin Media presenter Joe Molloy stated that Ireland “are streets ahead of everybody in this tournament”. Molloy was going by that Irish maxim of pointing out something might sound boastful, almost apologetically, before coming out and saying it. In years gone by, we would have cursed him for even thinking it.

Even Rob Kearney, one of Irish rugby’s most decorated rugby players, found it tough to sit back and swag. “I agree, but it’s uncomfortable saying it. I think as Irish it’s in our D.N.A – we love being the underdogs. We never like talking ourselves up. But it’s the fact of the matter.”

Being compared to the All Blacks would, for many a year, have made most in Ireland turn crimson. Given the manner in which Farrell’s Ireland have gone about their business, over the past two years, that Quesada praise was accepted with little comment.

With his side back in the changing room and full-on spent after a 36-0 thumping, Italy head coach Gonzalo Quesada afforded Andy Farrell’s Ireland side a huge compliment. Praising the hosts for getting an early lead and seeing it home, the former Argentina star remarked, “It was like the All Blacks from some years ago when they do their basics and they had 100 per cent from their scrum and their lineout and at high balls.”

Being compared to the All Blacks would, for many a year, have made most in Ireland turn crimson. Given the manner in which Farrell’s Ireland have gone about their business, over the past two years, that Quesada praise was accepted with little comment. Most were still wondering what had happened to the Italy side that had given England a right scare on the first weekend of the Six Nations.

It was that likening to the All Blacks – allied with the gushing words this Ireland team are being showered with, and a debate on the Aviva Stadium atmosphere – that transported me back to Waikato Stadium, in June 2006. This was the first iteration of Graham Henry’s magnificent All Blacks side, with a few fresh faces sprinkled in. Sink or swim Test outings.

The All Blacks had swept the Lions 3-0, the previous year, and won a touring ‘Grand Slam’ against England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They had also pouched the 2005 Tri Nations and faced Ireland in a two-Test series to warm up for that title defence.

My stand-out memory from Waikato Stadium was how funereal the atmosphere was. The home fans, so used to winning against visiting nations, chatted among themselves and made sure they were stocked up on beer. It was the Irish supporters that did most of the singing, teasing and cajoling. Ireland led 16-8 at the break and were still eight clear with 25 minutes to go.

Ma'a Nonu
Ireland threatened a surprise win in Waikato in 2006 before Ma’a Nonu and company roused themselves to win 34-23 (Photo Dean Treml//AFP via Getty Images)

Kiwis stewed in their seats as those around them in green allowed themselves to believe this would be their history-seizing day. Home pressure told, though, as Luke McAlister converted the penalty chances offered up before Ma’a Nonu fended Peter Stringer into Row G and offloaded for Troy Flavell to seal victory. All around us, the New Zealand fans erupted. They found their voice and were happy to show they had kept receipts during the 73-minute Irish hooley they had endured.

These fans were used to getting behind their sides in the real muck and bullets Test matches, but they served up tame fare in games the All Blacks were supposed to win.

Flash forward to Aviva Stadium on 10 February, with the Italian players drying their eyes after another sweeping rendition of their anthem (who knew that would be their match highlight?). An eight-year-old from Kilkenny, Stevie Mulrooney took the mic for Ireland’s Call and gave it all he had. It was a super little moment and got the crowd going. Then, the match started.

Few in green garb expected Italy to cause Ireland major worries but the one-way nature of play made it feel like a Sunday procession. The place was flat, save for the early Jack Crowley and Dan Sheehan tries. When there was a score, we had music pumped through the sound system as poor ‘Zombie’ was hammered over the head until it lost all meaning.

Becoming this relentless, roiling side that seems to roll younger replacements off a production line, well, that is a new one. The only difference with this fresher crop is the haircuts seem to be getting dodgier.

We were left with Ireland’s new captain, Caelan Doris, being asked what could be done to improve the atmosphere around Lansdowne Road. He offered up a drumming section suggestion, like many of the Top 14 sides have, before appealing to that younger, pinting demographic.

“Maybe having sections that are catered a little bit more for students or younger people and they are maybe encouraged to have a few more pints as well would be no harm. But I can see the frustration if people, who are there to watch the game, have people getting up and down in front of them. It takes away from being able to track the game but I’m sure there are ways to balance everything and maybe have sections.”

James Ryan
Ireland’s complete dominance over Italy in all areas made for a rather flat atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium (Photo Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

This is where Ireland are. Wales are coming to Dublin with an earnest, callow squad and a 0-2 record. Farrell’s men have had it drilled into them that no side has ever gone back-to-back with Six Nations Grand Slams. Supporters will be heading to Aviva Stadium, this Saturday, like those All Blacks fans did back in 2006. Much of the talk, this week, is about how to get the home fans revved up. This, again, is where Ireland are.

Ireland were painfully slow to get with the professional picture, back in the 1990s. The early 2000s were marked with some odd wonder and close calls but the past two decades – 2004 to 2024 – have seen Ireland become a force to be reckoned with. They have won the Six Nations five times (three Grand Slams), finished runner-up on six more occasions, held the world number one ranking for long stretches and had winning tours to Australia and New Zealand. The World Cup remains the consistent bubble-popper but, over the past 10 years, they have earned the respect afforded them.

Becoming this relentless, roiling side that seems to roll younger replacements off a production line, well, that is a new one. The only difference with this fresher crop is the haircuts seem to be getting dodgier.

Before that World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand, the dialogue was about how Ireland would advance if they played even close to what they were capable of. In shows, columns, podcasts and conversations between friends, there was little hint of boastfulness or dismissiveness with regards to the All Blacks. Ireland have been burned too many times, over the years, for that to fully take hold. There was, though, a quiet confidence. It felt like Ireland’s time had come. Until it had not, of course, and Rieko Ioane and Brodie Retallick were waving us on our way.

Back in 2019, after the Grand Slam and World Rugby Team of the Year accolades, Joe Schmidt spent the nine months leading up to the World Cup trying to talk Ireland out from that favourites’ tag. Under Farrell, Ireland have leaned into it.

In the Six Nations, Ireland retain that fear factor. “I don’t think anyone is near them,” Martin Johnson told ITV, while Ugo Monye said, on the Rugby Union Daily podcast, the Irish were “unstoppable”. The Netflix documentary, Full Contact, portrayed Ireland as this anodyne, green machine that rolled over hope and crushed dreams beneath their heel, then spoke in terribly respectful terms when the final whistle blew.

We had Stuart Hogg declaring, “We’re due these f***ers one. We’re going to lift the Triple Crown, and have a shit-tonne of fun doing it,” and Owen Farrell proclaiming, “Lads there’s 40 minutes left. 40 minutes to f***ing go for them.” Ireland went out and did their talking on the pitch, ticked up the scores and jogged on to the next one.

I’m sure Season Two of Full Contact will show us what France and Italy said in their players’ meetings and changing rooms before going out and taking their licks from Ireland. Midway through the second half, Sheehan was narrowly denied his hat-trick before being replaced by the equally excellent Rónan Kelleher. The biggest concern for Ireland, heading into the Wales game, is Hugo Keenan’s injury. It is only a drama because the next men up, Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien, are injured too. Handily, Ciarán Frawley, Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour are knocking about the squad.

Back in 2019, after the Grand Slam and World Rugby Team of the Year accolades, Joe Schmidt spent the nine months leading up to the World Cup trying to talk Ireland out from that favourites’ tag. Under Farrell, Ireland have leaned into it. “I don’t buy into that four-year cycle talk,” Farrell insisted at the recent Six Nations launch. If you pin all your hopes on a World Cup you are not enjoying what comes in between.

Watching Sheehan go close to his hat-trick, that yearning for the full-blown Nations Championship only heightened. It can’t come fast enough. Align the calendars, get full-strength sides having proper cracks at each other and let’s see who the favourites are, after that.

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8 Comments
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Bob Marler 153 days ago

Ireland are favourites to win the World Cup.

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