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Andy Farrell says he is ‘big enough and ugly enough’ to deal with the pressure

Ireland coach says he is comfortable under the spotlight as his first year in charge draws to a close.

Andy Farrell was in reflective mood yesterday as he looked back on 2020.
Andy Farrell was in reflective mood yesterday as he looked back on 2020.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ALL THE WAY through 2020, everyone has been trying a little too hard to separate the Farrell regime from his predecessor. Even Johnny Sexton – Farrell’s captain but also a Joe Schmidt apostle – talked earlier this month about how a line had been drawn after 2019.

“This is a new team,” Sexton said.

And then yesterday Farrell named an old one. After all the experimentation – 41 players used to date in 2020 – the side selected to play Scotland tomorrow was like a grand slam reunion, 11 of the starting XV having featured in the decisive game of the 2018 Six Nations campaign at Twickenham.

There would have been more, too, had Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour been fit – and had Dan Leavy got a few more minutes clocked up on his comeback trail. So, having failed to move forward since 2018, Ireland have done the next best thing and moved back towards it.

“We wanted to find out about players (this autumn),” said Farrell yesterday. “Also with the injuries that we’ve had, there’s a needs must as well that goes into team selections from time to time. I can see our team becoming more settled when the Six Nations gets under way; I suppose that’s been the whole point of this recent period.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the experimentation has ended. Results in 2020– five wins, three defeats – have been so-so; performances, three good, two mixed, two poor …… and whatever you call that against Georgia – have been inconsistent.

ross-byrne-reacts Ross Byrne shows his frustration during Ireland's win over Georgia. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On the back of that, stick has followed and Farrell has taken his fair share of it over the last fortnight, reflected in the tone of yesterday’s press conference. Across a ten-minute section of questioning, he faced 10 queries, three of those touching on the related issues of pressure and criticism.

“You always take note (of the criticism) because people always tell you (what has been said or written) anyway,” said Farrell. “I’m pretty self-aware and would trust myself to know where I’m at personally and where the team is at. That’s the main thing.

“I’m big enough and ugly enough to have been around professional sport for most of my life. So, this is another big game -the stress levels are okay. 

“It is never a smooth road in sport. I one hundred per cent knew there were always going to be massive ups and downs. The learnings that you take along the way make you stronger in the long run.”

Aside from the challenge of evolving the personnel, Farrell has also been trying to tweak the playing style. He had little choice, 2019 ending so anti-climatically, New Zealand easily decoding the Schmidt strategy, just as Wales and England had done so earlier in the year.

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With this in mind, and conscious that he had to be seen to be his own man, there was a drift to ‘heads up’ rugby from the new policy writers. While it has been visible on occasions, thus far, we have not just failed to see consistent performances from game to game, but even from half to half.

“We have made it known from the outset that this last six weeks has been about us finding out about ourselves,” he said.

“We’re always striving to improve every aspect of our game and you won’t necessarily see the steps we’re taking on a daily basis behind the scenes.

“What have we seen so far? I suppose our game understanding has grown, knowing how to deal with the territory/possession game has certainly improved.

“Our attacking kicking game is one that’s improving, but the accuracy is not there yet and the fundamentals of the game have to be strong.

shane-daly-and-soso-matiashvili Farrell believes Ireland's kicking game has evolved. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s finding the balance isn’t it? To make sure that the fundamentals stay unbelievably strong, you make sure they stand at the top of what you want to stand for.

“Finding the balance about how you improve the rest of your game, that’s the tricky piece isn’t it? It’s one we’ve started; one that we feel behind the scenes is going in the right direction.”

There was also a bit of housekeeping yesterday, confirmation that James Ryan will continue as vice-captain, one rung up the leadership ladder ahead of Peter O’Mahony. “James has done a fantastic job,” Farrell said, “and from speaking to him over the last couple of weeks in review, I think it’s a role he can develop and move forward with.”

As far as the captain is concerned, Sexton’s belief that he can keep going until the 2023 World Cup was met with a touch of realism, a reminder that no player will ever be picked on reputation, only on form. “It’s always going to be about performance – it has to be,” Farrell said. “The hunger and the drive in Johnny is never going to be any different. He’ll always strive to be the best that he can so I’m sure his performances are going to be top drawer.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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