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Ireland head coach Andy Farrell during yesterday's training session.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell during yesterday's training session.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

'The aim is 100% to kick on and push the boundaries even further' - Farrell

Andy Farrell has challenged his Ireland squad to improve on their impressive November campaign in this year’s Six Nations.
Jan 27th 2022, 9:20 AM 13,256 23

THERE WAS A calm confidence about Andy Farrell as he fielded questions during yesterday’s virtual Guinness Six Nations launch event, his team coming into the tournament billed as one of the favourites on the back of their impressive November campaign.

Rewind 12 months, and the forecast wasn’t quite as optimistic. Ireland had trudged their way through a difficult November series and came into the Six Nations under heavy scrutiny. Their attack had failed to convince and even old reliables such as the lineout and scrum were showing a few cracks. 

Last year’s Six Nations raised plenty more questions, but ever since that brilliant win over England in March, Ireland have started to deliver on what the coaches and players had been saying all along – give us time, it’s going to click.

Ireland go into this championship unbeaten since February of last year – a run stretching eight games – and carrying the feelgood factor of a November win over the All Blacks, where Farrell’s side produced a wonderful team performance in which they looked solid in defence and inventive in attack. 

The challenge for this squad now is to keep that momentum building towards the 2023 World Cup, while also establishing themselves as a consistent force in the here and now.

Ireland are currently fourth in the world rankings but haven’t won the Six Nations since 2018. For all the talk about peaking too early when it comes to World Cup preparations, Farrell has set the bar high in terms of his team’s ambitions over the coming weeks.

“It makes me laugh when coaches say they want to finish second or third,” Farrell said.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to finish first. We’re no different to every other team in the competition in that regard. But I think ultimately we want to kick on as a group, we want to kick on in the way we play the games, we want to push new boundaries for ourselves.

Farrell confirmed that all 37 members of his squad will travel to the warm-weather training camp in Portugal later this week, with Iain Henderson the only injury concern ahead of the 5 February opener against Wales in Dublin. His players had their first squad training session of the year in Abbotstown yesterday, and the head coach feels that is the point where you first get a real sense of the feeling within the group.

“It’s our first session on the field this afternoon, it all starts from there. It’s a new competition, the Six Nations is like no other. In November, yes there were some decent performances but we want to kick on and get better and see who is hungry enough to be in that frame of mind.

It’s just getting better at the things that we’ve been trying to get better at over the last 18 months or so. The good thing is that we’re nowhere near there yet. I was saying to the lads yesterday that there’s a good foundation that’s been built and there’s a real belief in how we’re trying to play the game, etc.

“It came together in parts pretty well in the autumn and the aim is 100% to kick on and push the boundaries even further.”

Sitting beside Farrell was the man preparing to lead Ireland into his third championship as captain, Johnny Sexton.

“Like Andy said, it depends on how we rock up to training in the next 10 days. That’s when you really get a feel for whether you’re ready or not,” Sexton explained.

andy-farrell-and-jonathan-sexton Farrell and Johnny Sexton's during Wednesday's Six Nations launch event. Source: GUINNESS Six Nations/INPHO

“Andy referred to the Japan week (in November) and that was exactly the same. We wanted to replicate what it was going to be like for the Six Nations and we need to realise what you need to do to prepare for an international game.

“I suppose I’ll know a lot more in the next week when we see the lads’ attitude in training and see how they turn up and prepare every day. At the moment I don’t know. Obviously we’ve had a good November, but we’ve often had that before and the Six Nations hasn’t gone to plan.

“We can take nothing for granted. All we can do is control what we can control, and that’s our preparation and making sure we tick all our boxes.”

Yet even with another Six Nations campaign on the horizon, France 2023 is very much on the mind. Farrell can lean on his experience of being part of Joe Schmidt’s coaching team when Ireland last won this competition in 2018, and being on board to see them fall flat at the 2019 World Cup one year later.

“You’d be pretty foolish not to learn from the experience,” Farrell added.

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“We will be better equipped (this time) because we’re already seeing some gains in what we’re trying to achieve and that’s growing the depth of the squad.

Competition for places going into a World Cup needs to be fierce, really. It needs to be a really competitive edge for us and that’s what we’re trying to grow and I think we’re seeing bits of that already.”

It all starts on Saturday week when defending champions Wales come to the Aviva Stadium. Wayne Pivac will be braced for a stern test as Ireland look to pick up where they left off last year, that high-tempo, breathless win over the All Blacks now the new benchmark for this team. 

“We want to play every game as quick as we can and so does every other team, I’m sure about that,” Farrell said.

“As I always say, each game takes its own course and certainly when you try and predict how things are going to go in the Six Nations, you come away with egg on your face trying to predict it, as a punter, never mind being a coach.

“There are so many variables aren’t there? Whether it be momentum, red cards, bonus points etc, the weather… You’ve got to be adaptable and roll with the punches because that’s what the Six Nations is, it’s a competition that is like no other.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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