Andy Farrell is learning all about the pressure and stress of being a head coach.

Ireland's clash with Scotland looms as hugely important for the Farrell era

The Ireland head coach needs to find some answers ahead of the third-place play-off in Dublin.

HOME FIXTURES AGAINST Scotland have been something of a comfort for Ireland in recent decades.

We have to go back to 2010 in Croke Park for the most recent Scottish win in Dublin, and 1998 for the time before that at Lansdowne Road.

But there is now surely now some trepidation for Andy Farrell’s Ireland team heading into Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup third-place play-off with Gregor Townsend’s men on the back of a thoroughly disheartening win over Georgia.

The scoreline was 23-10 in Ireland’s favour but it felt like a defeat after Farrell’s men delivered an awful second-half display in which they could muster only three points. 

The reality is that this Ireland set-up has been lacking confidence since their disastrous 2019 Six Nations and World Cup campaigns. Farrell was an assistant coach back then but he has so far been unable to restore belief in this Ireland squad, who clearly doubted themselves even against Georgia yesterday. 

“Confidence will not be a problem,” insisted CJ Stander rather unconvincingly when asked where Ireland’s belief levels lie ahead of the visit of Scotland.

Only moments earlier, the number eight had said of the Georgia game that Ireland “probably just didn’t follow through with the calls we made on the pitch, so that just comes down to belief in ourselves and belief in the squad.” 

Farrell mentioned several times his frustration that Ireland hadn’t had the “courage of our convictions” against Georgia, which follows soon after he felt his side lacked belief in themselves in the Six Nations defeat away to France.

Perhaps the players don’t have belief in what their coaches are trying to get them to do on the pitch? Farrell rejected that notion.

“No, I don’t think so,” said the head coach. “The first half was decent. We had some really good flowing play, some decent intent but a lack of continuity in that second half and not having the courage of our own convictions, like I keep on saying, choosing to play wide not through them tends to be the difference at this level, doesn’t it?”

andy-farrell-and-mike-catt Farrell and Ireland attack coach Mike Catt will be feeling the pressure. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

That Farrell himself ended the statement with a question suggests that perhaps he’s not quite sure what isn’t clicking at the moment.

While he managed to keep his emotions in check post-match yesterday, the Englishman appeared to be seething at his side’s second-half showing. It must be an exasperating feeling for a man who doesn’t have any previous experience as a head coach. He doesn’t have an experienced figure in his coaching staff to lean on either. 

No longer can Farrell himself hone in on one specific area of the game, as he previously could as Joe Schmidt’s defence coach. Now Farrell is the big boss, dealing with the kind of stress that he watched Schmidt grapple with so many times.

Farrell must be exasperated that the Irish players haven’t grasped what they had been crying out for – a more relaxed environment with a less rigid coaching approach. Many players had ended up bemoaning the prescriptive detail of Schmidt’s plan, yet now they are very much struggling to make good decisions without it. One suspects that many of them would like to be told exactly what to do out on the pitch again.

With Mike Catt in place as attack coach, there has been so much vague talk of Ireland playing “heads-up rugby” from Farrell’s own players recently but the head coach himself dismissed the phrase yesterday.

“Heads-up rugby, I don’t know, it’s a loose enough term that,” said Farrell. “It’s decision-making, isn’t it?

“If you earn the right to play and therefore, on the back of that, are you making the right decision?

“Once or twice, I think we’re making the wrong decision. We’re making things up and seeing things that are not really there.

“Therefore, the game of rugby is pretty simple, isn’t it? If there’s nothing on, you’ve got to have conviction in your carry and make sure your breakdown is impressive enough and then you can try and create something next time.

cj-stander-comes-up-against-soso-matiashvili Ireland were poor in victory over Georgia yesterday. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“So, I don’t want to try and complicate it too much because otherwise, you end up with that second-half performance.”

Over-complicate or under-complicate? It all seems a bit of a muddle with Ireland at the moment and as fresh concerns crop up, it’s hard to escape the feeling that events are ahead of Farrell and his coaching staff as they try to play catch-up.

Farrell will certainly be looking forward to coming up for some air after next weekend but first, he and his Ireland team must thrash out a home victory against Scotland.

The Ireland boss underlined yesterday how the improved Scots are “a big threat.” Townsend’s men could have won in Dublin earlier this year, when Stuart Hogg dropped the ball over the line and the Scottish pack dominated the Irish maul and scrum.

They will have belief that they can pull off the first Scottish win in Dublin in a decade.

If that transpires, Farrell will find himself under pressure, even if this is only the Autumn Nations Cup. 

A win of any kind is badly needed and will be all the better if Ireland can produce a performance that offers hope ahead of the 2021 Six Nations, which gets going in just over two months’ time.

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