Sublime series success is a momentous achievement for Andy Farrell

The Ireland head coach has steered his team to a series victory in New Zealand.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.

IT’S NOT THAT long ago that there were doubts about whether Andy Farrell was really the man to lead this Ireland team forward.

They had been in meandering form. There were good results, some solid performances, but there were days when Ireland looked a little chaotic. Sometimes you wondered what they were trying to be. 

The players insisted that things would click, that we’d all understand once they found their rhythm and all the bits they had been working on behind the scenes bore fruit. Their clear and total belief in the Farrell project was telling. 

And we finally began to see what they meant at the end of last year’s Six Nations as Ireland thundered past Eddie Jones’ England in Dublin, Keith Earls and Jack Conan scoring superb tries in a 32-18 win.

We had to wait until November 2021 to confirm that those promising signs were really Ireland taking the next step. They swept past Japan and Argentina but the one that made everyone sit up was the aesthetically pleasing and perfectly executed victory over the All Blacks. The Kiwis couldn’t live with Ireland’s scintillating attack.

Onwards to the 2022 Six Nations and though there was disappointment in Paris as Sexton missed out through injury, it was a strong championship for Farrell’s men. The Triple Crown was a welcome bit of silverware to mark the ongoing progress.

And now Farrell’s Ireland team have what is clearly their landmark achievement so far. They have won a Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

It’s worth writing here again because there are many Ireland fans who didn’t think they’d see it. This is arguably the greatest achievement in Irish rugby history.

No one could have presumed it would be such a deserved Test series success. Ireland were inarguably the better team over the course of the three games. Remember too that they beat the Māori All Blacks with an excellent performance from the wider squad.

ireland-players-celebrates-as-josh-van-der-flier-scores-his-sides-first-try Source: Photosport/Aaron Gillions/INPHO

It was their own errors that allowed the Kiwis to run up a big scoreline in the first Test, but Ireland were deserved winners second time around and they concluded it all with a superb outing in today’s third Test. There were, of course, deeply nervy moments but Ireland were definitely the better team.

Farrell will deflect the praise onto his team but this is a huge achievement, even if we acknowledge the low ebb that the All Blacks find themselves in under Ian Foster – whose position under intense pressure now.

There are always Ireland fans who clamour for more change but this team is undoubtedly a Farrell team, not one that simply rolled on from the last era.

Hugo Keenan, Caelan Doris, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Mack Hansen – all of these players and more have become key men under Farrell having either debuted in this era or having been fringe figures before.

And the longstanding stalwarts have found new energy under Farrell. Sexton is a good example. His inherent drive is key, no doubt, but the 37-year-old has thoroughly embraced the challenge of being handed Ireland’s captaincy by Farrell. He has grown and grown in the role.

Sexton has also embraced the shift in philosophy in terms of Ireland’s tactical approach under Farrell. He was Joe Schmidt’s embodiment on the pitch before and now he is very much that for Farrell, who believed that Ireland’s attack had become too predictable.

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Farrell went about redesigning their attack, encouraging players to have more autonomy in phase play, to make decisions for themselves and not be spoon-fed everything.

It was messy at times in the beginning but now we can see the results of Farrell and co. having patience and confidence that their players could grasp it. 

Meanwhile, attack coach Mike Catt has steadily improved Ireland’s set-piece attack over the past year and the results also speak for themselves. This writer was among those to criticise Catt but he has proven himself in style.

andy-farrell-during-the-warm-up Farrell has created a very happy Ireland camp. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

There have been big scrum issues at times for Ireland at times but Farrell continues to back John Fogarty to find improvement in that area, while the addition of Paul O’Connell as forwards coach at the start of last year was huge for this Irish squad.

It was open-minded of Farrell to bring in as high-profile and popular a figure as O’Connell. The players would obviously gravitate towards him, credit would naturally go to O’Connell in the media when things went well. Farrell was selfless enough to admit that change was required.

So Simon Easterby shifted his entire focus onto Ireland’s defence – having previously balanced that duty with coaching the forwards – and there was a positive impact there too. The Irish defence started to become more impactful.

O’Connell’s Irish lineout and maul have had bad days, including the first Test in New Zealand, but they have come good more often than not.

This third Test success was very much about the dominance of the Irish pack as they laid siege on the Kiwi forwards. Two maul tries in one game against the All Blacks is truly remarkable. O’Connell’s level of detail has also been thoroughly appreciated by the Irish players in the past two years.

And over the top of all the technical and tactical input from his assistants, Farrell has been the benevolent leader.

We know he can be cutting and ruthless when he needs to be, but he is a positive presence more than anything.

He told his Irish players that they were as skillful as anyone, as capable of playing exciting attacking rugby as any other team. He gave them responsibility on the pitch, told them to back themselves and do their thing. New faces were encouraged just to be themselves on and off the pitch.

Farrell has created a very happy camp, with senior players like Peter O’Mahony talking about it as being the most enjoyable they’ve ever experienced.

Most importantly for Farrell in his line of work, he has created a winning camp too. Whatever happens next, he will always have this stunning series success to his name.

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Murray Kinsella

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