Billy Stickland/INPHO
Band of Brothers

'It doesn’t get any better for us. This should be the week of our lives'

Andy Farrell has guided Ireland to two wins over New Zealand in eight months – his success based on encouraging the younger members of his team to grow as leaders.

TWO-AND-A-HALF YEARS AGO, Irish rugby was in a slump. The Schmidt era had ended on the flattest of notes and with half his backroom team staying on, the new regime bore a close resemblance to the old one.

So, incoming head coach Andy Farrell figured out he had to make changes. Personnel wise, it didn’t seem that way initially, but when you scroll through Saturday’s starting XV, you can see now what’s changed.

Six of the side who defeated the All Blacks on Saturday have made their debut under Farrell but that’s not the biggest adjustment since he came in. No, that’s been the redirection of policy. Under Schmidt there was a script to rigidly stick to; under Farrell the decision-making responsibility is shared more equally.

It had to be that way, not because Schmidt’s way was necessarily wrong – in fact for five of his six years it was clearly right – more because the players had tired of the old way. More to the point, if Farrell was to separate his methods from the Schmidt way of doing things, then he had to be his own man.

“We don’t want people just turning up and being told what to do all the time,” Farrell said. “We want people taking responsibility for themselves and their team.

“There’s a bit of a difference there but the leadership group in general have been fantastic. Eighteen months ago, or two years ago, there was a lot of meetings between myself and them trying to guide them to what leadership really is and how they grab hold of their team.

“The transition now has been to just let them go and watch them grab hold of their team and make everyone feel like a million dollars. They’ve been exceptional.

“James Ryan is in that (group), Garry Ringrose is in that and Tadhg Furlong. Tadhg, two or three years ago used to say ‘leave me alone, just let me get on with the scrummaging bit’, you know? He’s now relishing the fact that he’s taking more responsibility for the team and I think it’s helped him as a person and as a player as well.

“Obviously Johnny and Pete are in that and Iain Henderson is one of the leaders but the knock-on effect that those guys are having on the rest of the team is making sure the likes of Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris etc, are growing as leaders as well.”


We got to see that for ourselves on Saturday when they defeated the All Blacks on New Zealand soil for the first time, becoming just the sixth team to do so in the history of international rugby.

You sense this would never have happened without Schmidt and earlier Irish coaches, Kidney, O’Sullivan and Gatland laying the groundwork, for each of them achieved historic firsts – a breakthrough win in Paris (Gatland); victories over Australia, Springboks and three Triple Crowns (O’Sullivan); a Grand Slam (Kidney) and that’s before we mention the Joe Show.

Beating New Zealand – first in Chicago, then in the Aviva – were the stand-out achievements but there was also a Grand Slam, a first away win in South Africa, a series win in Australia.

The team followed a pattern. And it worked brilliantly, until that final year when too many key players grew old overnight. For Farrell to stand out, fresh ideas were needed.

“You have to think differently,” he said to his players. “You can’t just turn up for a meeting and be told by me what you need to do. You need to understand what you want out of the day; how you want to turn up, how you’re going to plan, how you’re going to influence.” 

It took time before we saw the point to all this. Performances in his first year were inconsistent, one against Georgia being particularly poor. But they have been very good since March 2020, beating England and New Zealand twice, losing just two games, in Paris and Eden Park. The team’s confidence has soared.

“Confidence doesn’t come from results; it comes from belief in how they’re playing the game. It doesn’t come from results at all. They’ve told themselves when it wasn’t going swimmingly for us that ‘it’s coming’, they could feel it and they certainly believe in what they’re about and also as well realistic about how much improvement there is within all that.” 

Accordingly, they have been able to react to setbacks on this tour: Covid cases, concussions, injuries, withdrawals, two losses in Hamilton and Auckland. Yet he chose to go with just a 40-man squad by choice, to mimic the intensity Ireland will face at the World Cup.

“We’ve obviously had a schedule but those plans go out the window because of the games that we’ve had and different personnel playing, doubling up,” Farrell said.

“So on purpose sometimes what we’ve done is just change the schedule around to see how we cope because that’s what’s coming. That’s what you have to be able to do, is adapt during a World Cup.

cian-prendergast-finlay-bealham-hugo-keenan-dave-heffernan-bundee-aki-and-peter-wilkins-celebrate-winning Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“You’re not just putting the management under pressure, you’re putting the players under pressure, and when you actually say to them: ‘Listen, you’re backing up.’ Not one of them has looked at me with a body language that says; ‘You’re kidding’. They’re all desperate.

“In fact, there are people that are playing on Saturday who played in the last Maori game who are actually saying: ‘Well, why am I not playing?’ Because they want to do that for their team-mates and they understand that this is different and there’s a bigger picture to it all.”

The person who has stood out most is Peter O’Mahony, the Munster captain, who was on the bench for large periods of the last 12 months.

“He was the best example that I’ve ever seen of just getting on with it,” said Farrell.

“He was a brilliant example to everyone going forward and within all of that there’s a determination to say: ‘Right, okay, this is the situation. I’m going to get back’. And we all know that Pete has been a bit of a glue player in the changing room for how it makes people feel.

“But, wow, his performances in the big games for Munster over the last while and his captaincy for Munster has been outstanding for Munster this year. There’s a maturity within his game, there’s a hunger to keep on improving, and he was certainly one of the best on Saturday.”

The upshot is they’re here, in Wellington, one win away from becoming the first team to win a series in New Zealand since France in 1994. Prior to then just three teams, Australia twice, The Lions and Springboks, returned home with a series victory.

“Look where we are at,” said Farrell. “I mean, it doesn’t get any better for us. This should be the week of our lives. I mean, we are here. Not one person is talking about anything but the task at hand, today, tomorrow, Thursday training, whatever it may be.

“This is where we want to be. Of course there is pressure. That goes with that, but we have earned the right to put ourselves into a position to be in these big games. It’s where we want to be. It’s how we want to be feeling because it’s the only way that we can keep on growing.”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel