The Boss

Winning, fresh faces, and his 'ideas man' - Farrell launches the new Ireland era

‘I’ll always be myself otherwise I wouldn’t be true to what I believe in.’

IN THE SPARSE, trendy surroundings of the Tobacco Dock in London’s East End – where we’re told there was a rave only days ago – Andy Farrell outlined the task ahead of his Ireland squad in the 2020 Six Nations. 

Whether it ends with Ireland feeling on top of the world or puking their guts up in the back of a taxi home is still unclear, but it promises to be quite the party.

The new head coach is eager for his men to develop their game, to drive on from what ultimately proved unsuccessful at the World Cup last year, while not completely throwing out the elements that brought so much success before that under Joe Schmidt.

andy-farrell-and-owen-farrell Andy Farrell speaks to his son, Owen, at the Six Nations launch. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Completely tearing up the script with essentially only 10 days of preparation for the opener against Scotland in Dublin on Saturday 1 February would be silly, so there will naturally be an overlap from how Schmidt’s Ireland functioned, with Farrell stressing that he’d be “absolutely foolish not to harness those bits.”

That said, the 44-year-old Englishman wants his side to grow and he wants to put his own stamp on things. He understands that will take time and also that getting results is important too.

Prize money in the Six Nations is crucial to the IRFU, while a strong 2020 is vital for Ireland with the pool draw for the 2023 World Cup set to take place in November. World Rugby ranking position will, therefore, be crucial.

“Progressing our game,” said Farrell yesterday when asked what a good Six Nations for Ireland would involve.

“Winning – it matters. We won’t shy away from that, I told the boys yesterday.

“If I told Johnny [Sexton, the Ireland captain] that he’s going into a game to play second fiddle and to come away with a loss, he’d think I’d gone mad.

“So we want to win. At the same time, we want to develop our game, we want to keep improving and certain aspects will take a bit of time. But at the same time, we expect to perform.”

It’s a fascinating job for Farrell, who is now in his first permanent head coaching role. He’s been involved in professional rugby since the age of 16, becoming a rugby league legend before converting to union and advancing into coaching in the 15-man code.

He’s had assistant roles with Saracens, England, the Lions, and Ireland, but now gets his shot at being the boss. 

andy-farrell Farrell finally gets a shot at being head coach. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m still going to be myself, 100%,” said Farrell of how the promotion will affect his relationship with the Ireland players he has worked with since 2016. “I’ll always be myself otherwise I wouldn’t be true to what I believe in.

“That’s the way I’ve always coached. Is it going to change as far as the players are concerned? Obviously selection is a big thing and that will be down to me to make the final call, with the assistance of the coaches, but I’ll make the final call.

“Will that change? I don’t see it changing at all because I hope I’ve got good enough relationships that are trusted relationships so we can work together.”

While Farrell – who fielded a few half-hearted questions about Saracens and his son yesterday – is excited about driving Ireland in the direction he sees as the best fit, he will also be relying on the men in this coaching team to add value.

Simon Easterby shifts into the defence coach role, while Richie Murphy is still in situ as skills and kicking coach. John Fogarty is on board as the set-piece specialist, and new attack coach Mike Catt is the most intriguing element of the staff.

Formerly fellow assistant coaches under Stuart Lancaster with England, Farrell and Catt are good friends and the Ireland boss is excited to be working with Catt again.

“He’s an ideas man who gets excited about the attacking game of rugby and I need that,” said Farrell.

“I need to be challenged along the way myself with people throwing ideas at me and giving me a few headaches along the way. I’ll sift through all those and make decisions.”

Such is Catt’s excitement about progressing Ireland’s attack, he paid a visit to captain Sexton’s house soon after arriving and had to eventually be shoved out the front door.

“He called over to meet me and I told my wife I’d meet him for 20 minutes or half an hour,” explained Sexton. “And about two hours later she sent me a sneaky text to say ‘Your dinner is ready, tell Mike to leave.’

andy-farrell-with-mike-catt Catt was the Italy attack coach for three years. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“The passion he has for the game, you can’t but get excited being around him.”

There is excitement around some of the fresh faces in Ireland’s squad too, with Farrell having named five uncapped players in Caelan Doris, Rónan Kelleher, Max Deegan, Billy Burns, and Tom O’Toole.

It will be fascinating to see how Farrell goes about selecting his first team to face Scotland in two weekends’ time, with the matchday 23 set to be named next Tuesday at their training camp in Portugal, the 36-man squad having arrived in Faro yesterday. 

“You don’t just get selected because you’re experienced, you get selected because you’re going to make a difference at the weekend,” said Farrell, although Sexton underlined that the newcomers will have a big step to take if they are involved.

“You don’t want to bring in new faces for the sake of it,” said Sexton. “You want to bring in people that have deserved it and you can see the performances from the new faces have been brilliant, so they need to take that confidence in.

“But also they need to realise what they produced for Leinster or Munster or Ulster or Connacht is not enough. You’ve got to come in and go up a gear and then what makes it harder again is that you’ve got to deal with people that you’re not used to playing with.

“That’s what makes international rugby just a little bit different, with the pressure that goes with it. But we’ve got the right guys in there to help them along to tell them what’s expected and to show them what’s the right thing to do.”

Whether it’s a happy Six Nations for Ireland or not remains to be seen, but it’s certain to be interesting either way with Farrell in charge.

“I’m proud to be sat here, I am,” he said yesterday before heading onwards to Portugal.

“That’s the buzz that gets me out of bed every morning and the buzz has never been better than this moment in time.”

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