Ireland centre Bundee Aki. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This Ireland team are more than capable of making history this weekend

Andy Farrell has total confidence in his players and the feeling is reciprocated.

IT TURNS OUT all the prayers and well wishes worked. You could probably hear the sighs of relief across the rugby nation as Ireland announced their team to face New Zealand with Mack Hansen in it.

There are still a couple more days to go, Ireland having named their matchday squad 24 hours earlier than usual, but Andy Farrell sounded confident that the Connacht man will be ready to take his place in the number 14 shirt for this hugely anticipated World Cup quarter-final.

After all the worry and drama of the last few days, Farrell was able to name an unchanged starting XV for this weekend’s meeting with the All Blacks.

He likes having momentum and rhythm in his team. Ireland certainly have that. They feel battle-hardened after their wins over South Africa and Scotland, something that Farrell also values greatly.

New Zealand’s starting XV this weekend will have played fewer minutes than Ireland’s players, far fewer in some cases. While most of the key Irish players have started four games in a row, many of New Zealand’s were in the starting side for only two of their four pool games.

Both approaches make sense and the proof will be in the pudding on Saturday night. While there seems to be some concern that Ireland might be tired at this stage, it’s worth remembering that they started with a facile win over Romania that was less taxing than one of their high-intensity training sessions. They were able to take key men off early that day and against Tonga and Scotland.

Farrell feels that his men are in the right place between underexposed and overexposed as they head into the knock-out stages. And being around this Ireland squad, there is no sense of fatigue or weariness. They had a three-day holiday in the wake of the South Africa game, the perfect time to mentally refresh before going again.

And surely this is the time when the IRFU’s much-vaunted player management programme comes into its own. These players have been very well looked after for years now, all of it with this World Cup in mind.

andy-farrell Ireland boss Andy Farrell. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

There is also a sense that Farrell’s force of personality continues to drive energy within the group. The more time you spend around Farrell, even in the relatively stilted confines of media engagements, the more you see of the stuff that makes his players love him.

His confidence is infectious, his touches of humour can break up serious moments at the right time, and it’s obvious that his demands never slip. He has 33 disciples in this Ireland World Cup squad, as well as a few more who missed out on the World Cup. 

Even a behind-the-scenes video showing Ireland’s players having a bit of craic with a one-touch football competition is a hint at another side of Farrell. He is right in the thick of it, very much one of the lads.

Then when he’s in work mode, the players know Farrell is not to be trifled with. He has driven their training levels to a place where those who haven’t even played a Test for several weeks feel comfortable and confident slotting back into the team. Stuart McCloskey provided the latest example with an excellent outing last weekend.

Because he’s such a good vibes man, it’s often overlooked that Farrell brings huge rugby detail too. He has helped to make Ireland one of the most intricately assembled attacking teams in the world. It’s all pretty simple stuff, but it’s not easy to do. Many other teams have attempted to mimic Ireland but the devil really is in the detail.

The confidence Ireland’s players feel in Farrell’s leadership is mirrored in how he views them. He has a settled team featuring lots of world-class players ready to go at the All Blacks this weekend.

Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong combine power with excellent technical skills on both sides of the ball, the dynamic Dan Sheehan is one of the world’s best hookers, while lock Iain Henderson is looking back to his best. Tadhg Beirne hasn’t had as many highlights reel moments as usual so far in this tournament, but his form is still outstanding.

Caelan Doris is influential in nearly every moment of the game, Josh van der Flier somehow still almost flies under the radar despite being World Rugby player of the year, and centurion Peter O’Mahony somehow seems to be getting better at 34.

caelan-doris Ireland number eight Caelan Doris. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Jamison Gibson-Park is a creative beacon and Johnny Sexton is arguably still the best out-half in the world. Bundee Aki is in the best form of his life, while Garry Ringrose is so often the glue that brings everything together. Both midfielders also bring aggressive edge.

To have wing pair James Lowe and Hansen available is huge for Ireland, given how important they are in all aspects, while Hugo Keenan is so good every weekend that it’s definitely taken for granted at this stage.

There’s lots to like on the Irish bench too. Rónan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, and Finlay Bealham have formed a potent impact front row, while Jack Conan has lost time to make up for. Conor Murray is purring with class and Jack Crowley has quietly had a vital role to play in the last two games. His temperament is something Farrell likes.

This weekend, the two jack-in-the-boxes are Joe McCarthy and Jimmy O’Brien. They’re inexperienced at this level and a World Cup quarter-final is clearly a huge step up but by all accounts, they appear totally undaunted behind the scenes.

There’s an unfazed quality to these younger Irish players, who are now used to beating most teams they face. While it might seem a bit mad that 22-year-old McCarthy suddenly finds himself involved on such a grand stage and O’Brien will make his World Cup debut in such a high-stakes game, they don’t seem to see it as such.

The All Blacks have lots of dangerous weapons on their side, of course, but Farrell is justified in thinking that his Ireland players are more than capable of making history this weekend.

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