'I'm sure we're going to see a few bolters for all countries' - Farrell

The Ireland boss is embracing the challenge of an uncertain season ahead.

“THE BUZZ WORD over the next couple of months is going to be adaptability.”

Andy Farrell sums up the job ahead of him as Ireland coach succinctly, but his mindset applies to everyone in Irish rugby and further afield.

“We’ve all got to do that in life really – be able to adapt,” says Farrell.

The rugby calendar over the next 12 months is genuinely jam-packed. The conclusion of the 2019/20 season, an extended autumn Test window, the delayed start to the 2020/21 club campaign, the 2021 Six Nations, and more. It all ends with a Lions tour to South Africa next summer.

andy-farrell-ahead-of-the-game Andy Farrell has a busy year ahead with Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And while most of that rugby is now fully scheduled and fixtures are in the diary, there’s an acknowledgement from everyone that things could change quickly and dramatically depending on how Covid-19 goes. 

Fingers everywhere are crossed that the current plan plays out as intended but Farrell knows that even if it does, his job as Ireland coach contains a few uncertainties.

Ireland’s first match of the autumn, the rescheduled Six Nations clash with Italy at the Aviva Stadium on 24 October, is a case in point.

The weekend before, the 2019/20 Champions Cup final is due to take place. With Leinster and Ulster both in the quarter-finals of the competition, there could well be Irish involvement in that European final.

“We would want to try and come together a little bit before that,” says Farrell. “It could be that Ulster and Leinster get into that final.

“We could be picking from two provincial teams or maybe three or, unfortunately, we might be able to pick from four. We’ve got to be adaptable from the start.”

With the rescheduled Six Nations clash with France to follow the weekend after, then a break weekend before the new ‘Eight Nations’ tournament, Farrell underlined that it’s likely he will bring together a bigger Ireland squad than would normally be the case in the autumn – and not just for rotation during the six Tests in seven weekends.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen on game day either – if somebody fails a test, for example, you might need to carry one or two extra players with you than you normally would,” says Farrell.

Even selecting his squad will be an interesting challenge. While Munster, Ulster and Leinster players will hope to impress in the Pro14 semi-finals and final, Connacht won’t be involved in those play-off games.

robert-baloucoune-and-tiernan-ohalloran Connacht and Ulster will meet on 23 August in Dublin. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Munster aren’t in the Champions Cup quarter-finals and Connacht won’t be involved in the European competition either. 

The western province only have their two inter-pro ties at the end of this month, then won’t play again until the start of the 2020/21 Pro14 season on the first weekend of October. Not ideal for Ireland hopefuls.

“Connacht’s got their own plan,” says Farrell. “I’ve been speaking to Andy Friend the whole time and Connacht have trained really hard and they know they’re going to have a break and they’ll take a bit of rest time as well.

“They’ll certainly be back at the start of the season like everyone else and we’ll obviously make sure that the two games they are going to play are going to be crucial for them as well.”

Of course, there are positives in the uncertainty as well. Bolters are always a hot topic in Lions seasons but Farrell feels that national teams like Ireland will unearth new stars as well.

The number of Tests this season, coupled with the busy and physically-demanding calendar for the provinces, is likely to mean Ireland’s depth is tested more than ever.

“We’re always looking to grow the pool anyway, we’re always looking for players to put their hand up and show that they’re international quality,” says Farrell.

“It’s a hell of a year which finishes in what I’d imagine is everyone’s dream – if you’ve got aspirations to play international rugby, I’m sure your aspiration is to be a British and Irish Lion at the end of it as well.

“I know what Warren [Gatland, the Lions head coach] is like, if somebody grabs the bull by the horns at the start of the season and continues that over a long old period of this season, anything is able to happen.

“We all love finding new players that can adapt and show their worth in the international scene and I’m sure that for all countries really, I’m sure we’re going to see a few bolters.”

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andy-farrell-and-mike-catt Ireland attack coach Mike Catt with Farrell. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

Farrell himself could even feature with the Lions, having been a key assistant to Gatland on the last two tours. Asked if he would be keen to go on another tour if Gatland asked him, the Ireland head coach certainly didn’t rule himself out.

“Obviously Warren is a friend of mine. We speak from time to time. I’ve obviously enjoyed working with him and he’d be somebody that I’d speak to along the way anyway.

“I know that happens within a Lions year – he always keeps his cards close to his chest and things don’t get sorted out until he’s quite sure at the end of the next Six Nations of what he would want as far has his squad and his staff is concerned. There’s no point second guessing, I’ve learned that down the years certainly with Warren and rightly so.”

Tactically, it will be intriguing to note how Ireland develop and morph as this season unfolds, potentially bringing with it tactical shifts in the game.

Farrell and attack coach Mike Catt began installing a new 1-3-2-2 attack shape during the Six Nations, while there were signs of an intent to move the ball wider within that framework. Now we wait to learn what the next steps are for Farrell’s team.

“Attack is always going to be a work in progress for everyone,” says the Ireland boss. “Making sure that we understand, first and foremost, that it’s not about passing the ball for passing the ball’s sake.

“Of course, we want to play heads-up rugby and we want to see and play to space, whether that’s in front of us or to the side of us, but at the same time, the game’s still the game. It’s still about go-forward, it’s about quick ball and imposing yourself on the opposition. So getting that blend is going to be key for us as well.”

All in all, there is much to look forward to if this all goes off without major hitches.

“Players, fans, everyone around the world, they’re never going to forget this year are they?” concludes Farrell.

“There’s a tournament that’s going to be played that will probably not get played again [the Eight Nations]. There’s European games going into that tournament and then going into inter-provincial games over Christmas then going into the Six Nations then going into Pro14 and Europe and the Lions. It’s amazing.

“If there was ever a year to be at your best, this is the year. So this is what drives us on.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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