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Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

'There’s a hunger there' - Farrell confident Ireland can make progress in Six Nations

The Ireland head coach has also backed Josh van der Flier to step up in the absence of Caelan Doris.
Feb 6th 2021, 7:00 AM 12,816 37

THE FAULTS IN Ireland’s system last season were obvious. Struggles at the set-piece, coming off second best in some of the physical exchanges, and an inability to break down some of the better organised defensive systems. 

The problems highlighted above sound drastic but are fixable. As with any Six Nations, Ireland come into the tournament with a sense of optimism, the head coach describing the mood in camp as ‘buoyant.’ They have the players to remedy all those issues and most of Farrell’s key men are fit. 

Looking at his matchday 23 for the trip to Wales tomorrow, there is a solid core of experience along with a splash of fresher blood and a potentially game-changing bench. The Ireland head coach is expecting a sterner challenge than some have predicted from Wayne Pivac’s side, but he knows this is a fixture Ireland should be winning. 

“I suppose we could talk about how well we’ve trained, and every team does that, but it’s about performance now isn’t it?” said Farrell, speaking shortly after naming his team yesterday.

“Starting the competition off well is obviously key. Getting a victory in the Six Nations is key. This is a competition everyone wants to win at the start.

“The main thing for us is about the continuity of our performance, getting all of our bits right at set-piece, defence, attack, counter-attack, etc, and making sure that they all come together in the right format.

“Having a proper intent, showing our want to try and win this competition right from the get-go is key for us.”

Winning this Six Nations might be a step too far for now, but Ireland are certainly capable of playing better than they did at the tail-end of last year. Stringing together a run of more structured, cohesive performances would be enough to suggest this Ireland side is making some progress.

The team that lines out tomorrow is unlikely to remain in place come the visit of England on March 20. A lot of the old guard are still holding their ground, but Farrell also capped 11 new faces in 2020. He will give players opportunities and look to further develop his squad’s depth over the coming weeks. 

“As this tournament goes along, we’ve all seen enough or been involved enough in these competitions to see that they all take their own way over the course of the next eight weeks,” he continued.

“Hopefully what we built in the autumn regarding the base of the squad and the players that have just sat on the outside as well – hopefully that will stand us in good stead.

“I’ve been very impressed with how we hit the ground running from day one when we came into camp. There’s a hunger there, there’s a togetherness there, there’s a unity within the squad that’s hungry to do well. The lads are really taking ownership of where they are as a group and yeah, there’s a lot of togetherness that will stay strong over the next 48 hours and hopefully that will stand us in good stead come kick-off time.” 

The nature of some of those autumn defeats still stings. A demoralising loss to England, Ireland’s fourth in succession, suggested they are still some way off Eddie Jones’ team. A month previously, their inaccuracy and some sloppy errors cost them dearly against a brilliant France in Paris.

This time around Ireland need to be more assured, more clinical, and more ruthless.

“We talked about a different squad in the autumn and people being at different stages of their international career. Some young lads, going to Paris for the first time and experiencing what that looks like when there’s a title on the line – that’s a priceless experience for them.

“Regarding preparation and how they prepare for the week, how they deal with the pressure during the week and leading up to the game is one that we’ve talked about a lot.

“We always take some good learnings from any type of loss. It’s stuff that we talked about in the autumn and obviously when we first came back into camp, so we’ll see.”

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His biggest call this week arguably came in the back row, where Josh van der Flier wins the race to line out alongside the familiar combination of Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in the absence of Caelan Doris. The Leinster flanker has previously been a mainstay of the team, starting all of the major games at the 2019 World Cup as well as all three Six Nations games before the pandemic paused last season’s championship.

Since then he’s been in and out of the team for both club and country, starting against Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup before coming off the bench in the win over Scotland. Doris’ rise, along with the form of O’Mahony and Stander, looked to have squeezed him out of the equation. His selection tomorrow is a sign of faith from his coach, with Will Connors starting on the bench and Rhys Ruddock, who has been playing some of the best rugby of his career recently, left at home.

“Josh will be himself,” Farrell said. “He’s shown some real good intent when he’s come on the field. I thought he was excellent coming on against Scotland in the last game and he had some real intent in his game.

james-ryan-and-josh-van-der-flier James Ryan and Josh van der Flier during an Ireland training session on Friday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’ve seen that time and time again from Josh. Just because he’s a quiet-enough character it doesn’t mean that he’s not got the intent or the physicality that everyone sees from somebody that’s flamboyant or boisterous on the field. He gets the job done really well and we’re super-excited to see Josh get his chance and show everyone what he’s about.

“Josh, in a lot of the big games that we’ve played in over the last five years, he’s been an integral part of that.”

Farrell kept it brief when asked to expand on some of the thinking behind that selection process. Van der Flier’s inclusion pushes O’Mahony, who has excelled at openside this season, back to blindside.

“Even as a 7, Peter plays the way that Peter plays and he’ll play exactly the same at 6,” Farrell responded.

How about the overall dynamic of the back row? Van der Flier has his own strengths but is not a player in the same mould of Doris, whose ball-carrying ability brought real dynamism at number eight in the autumn.

“Well, obviously CJ goes there (to number eight) and Pete and Josh are pretty handy at carrying the ball as well, so that’s how we see it.”

Farrell believes this team has the quality and depth to close the gap on England and France. An assured showing tomorrow will cement that idea in his head. A couple of big wins in this Six Nations would do nicely, but he wants more than that. The desire is for a team that not only wins, but wins in style.

“The Six Nations tends to be won by the team that wins the most, so yeah, winning first and foremost has got to be key. But obviously we take pride in our performance as well. That’s got to come hand in hand as well.”

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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