Farrell is into his second year in charge of Ireland. Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Fraught week for Farrell and Nucifora as Ireland fight to recover against France

A home defeat to les Bleus would leave Ireland staring at a miserable Six Nations campaign.

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY COACHING is definitely not recommended as a career for anyone who wishes to avoid serious stress, but this week is likely to be more fraught than usual for Andy Farrell.

Just over a year into his time in charge of Ireland, Farrell already understands plenty about how unforeseen events can have a dramatic effect on what he is paid to do: win games for Ireland. 

A 14th-minute red card for Peter O’Mahony was the latest example. The Ireland head coach will feel his team was more than good enough to win in Wales had they been at their full 15-man strength but he will never know for sure. That they nearly pulled it off with 14 may have given Farrell some heart.

So far, his record as Ireland head coach stands at played 10, won six, lost four. 

Home wins against Wales twice, Scotland twice, Georgia [albeit with a very poor performance], and Italy. Away defeats to England twice, France, and Wales. It has been pretty much par for the course.

There haven’t been any disasters nor have there been any signature victories or captivating performances that have convinced Ireland fans that this is all moving in the right direction. Many of them still have the bitter taste of 2019 in their mouths.

While France are narrow favourites ahead of Sunday’s Six Nations clash in Dublin, there is no doubting that a home defeat for Ireland will see Farrell come under pressure. The 45-year-old needs a rousing display and result to reignite his team’s Six Nations hopes.

A home win against this excellent French team could be the catalyst for a strong run-in, with the round three tie against Italy nicely buffered by rest weekends before the closing two rounds see Ireland travel to Scotland and then welcome England to Dublin. What an occasion that would be if Ireland were still in the running on 20 March.

On the other hand, two defeats from the two opening rounds would leave Ireland staring at a rather miserable championship.

iain-henderson-tadhg-furlong-and-will-connors-dejected-after-the-game Ireland came up short last weekend in Cardiff. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

As has been well documented, Farrell has been loyal to the bulk of the squad that had a poor final year under Joe Schmidt in 2019. Farrell would have been gutted that experienced figures like Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls contributed to the damaging error count in the third quarter last weekend in Cardiff. 

There is obviously uncertainty over Sexton following his blow to the head on Sunday but Farrell will need every one of those senior men to be on it this weekend against les Bleus. 

It would have been encouraging for Farrell to see his players battle last weekend after the major early blow of losing O’Mahony to his red card and then James Ryan to a head injury. This squad are evidently invested in Farrell’s leadership but the product on the pitch still needs a more convincing kick-start. 

Watching with what will surely be a hint of nervousness on Sunday will be IRFU performance director David Nucifora, the man who promoted Farrell when Schmidt confirmed he was stepping away.

There have been positive appointments in the provinces in recent years and Nucifora deserves credit there but he will also be judged on how Farrell fares in the top job, in which he is contracted through until the 2023 World Cup. 

Nucifora clearly agreed with the need to bulk up Farrell’s coaching staff this year and Paul O’Connell’s impact seemed obvious in the breakdown accuracy – O’Mahony’s sending off aside – and lineout steals against Wales, but many saw it as a belated move to remedy an initial error in how the Irish coaching staff was put together.

The Six Nations is a massive deal for the IRFU at any time but all the more so now given the financial strain that continues to be caused by Covid-19, meaning any additional prize money would be gratefully received. 

The Strategic Plan launched by Nucifora and the IRFU in October 2018 targeted a World Cup semi-final or better in 2019 [and 2023], as well as two or more Six Nations titles before 2023. Ireland failed in the former objective and it would require Farrell’s team to win two of the next three championships to pull off the latter. Ireland are also a couple of spots off the stated aim of consistently being ranked in the top three teams in the world. 

david-nucifora Nucifora has backed Farrell with a contract through to the 2023 World Cup. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Failures on the pitch for Ireland invariably lead to bigger-picture questions about the state of the game, so a poor Six Nations for Farrell’s men would undoubtedly result in plenty of the criticism being directed at the admittedly thick-skinned Nucifora.

Some within Irish rugby are frustrated that his report into Ireland’s failure at the 2019 World Cup has not been more widely shared. Underperformance in this championship after an up-and-down 2020 would lead to questions around whether any lessons were really learned from that review.

And yet, the alternative of Farrell’s Ireland taking off with a win on Sunday, then beating Italy and Scotland to give themselves a shot at the title on the last day of this championship would allow Nucifora a nod of satisfaction at backing him as the head coach to lead Ireland into the next World Cup.

In that sense, it all feels poised on the edge of a knife.

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