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Andy Farrell steers a happy Ireland camp to an outstanding autumn

The 2022 Six Nations now looms into view.

Ireland finished with a big win over Argentina.
Ireland finished with a big win over Argentina.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Tue 3:00 PM

142 POINTS SCORED, 19 tries, 24 linebreaks, 39 offloads, only four tries conceded, 12 breakdown steals, five lineout steals.

There are plenty of numbers that can help to sum up a very happy autumn Test window for Andy Farrell’s Ireland but the three wins from three matter as much as any of them.

This Irish team generated major momentum over the course of their victories against Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina, teeing them up beautifully for a crack at the 2022 Six Nations but also setting them off towards the 2023 World Cup with a skip in their step.

Farrell has asked his players to embrace that long-term target of the 2023 tournament in France and this month was a good start.

“We are not afraid to say we want to win the World Cup,” said 22-year-old lock Ryan Baird after Sunday’s seven-try win over Argentina. “We have milestones along the way.

“For this autumn, we treated it like a quarter-final, semi-final, final. As Johnny [Sexton] alluded to last week, and I’m sure Faz has as well, we didn’t have anything to go for except the victories, so it’s a great stepping stone.”

While there is excitement within this Ireland squad at their progress and consistency, there has been plenty of balance in their reaction to this month’s successes too. Farrell and his players have struck a notably level-headed note after each of the victories, stressing the need to get better.

Farrell used 31 players during these three Tests and was particularly delighted by how younger or less experienced men like Baird, Craig Casey, Tom O’Toole, Nick Timoney, Robert Baloucoune, Harry Byrne, and Dan Sheehan took their chances. 

tomas-lavanini-and-dan-sheehan Dan Sheehan was one of the big winners of this window. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

On the personnel front, Farrell has landed on a thrillingly dynamic and skillful front row with Andrew Porter having converted to loosehead, Rónan Kelleher having earned first-choice status at hooker, and Tadhg Furlong continuing this world-class form.

The rejuvenation of James Lowe on the left wing has been a major success too, while Andrew Conway has re-emerged impressively on the other side, as Hugo Keenan has stamped his authority all over the number 15 shirt once again.

Garry Ringrose had an excellent autumn, with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw both seeing time at number 12, while Jamison Gibson-Park is now first-choice at scrum-half after accurate, creative, and high-tempo showings against Japan and the All Blacks.

The back row unit of Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris, and Peter O’Mahony was wonderfully effective and impactful, while Farrell also has three excellent locks in Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, and James Ryan – whose campaign ended worryingly with another head injury. 

36-year-old Sexton looked positively fresh as captain and out-half in the first two games before Joey Carbery delivered an encouraging performance at number 10 against the Pumas.

It all looks rosy for Farrell, although he will need to get more certainty around the back-up tighthead slot behind Furlong and continue to push Carbery and Byrne to close the gap on Sexton.

As important as anything else, Ireland’s tactical approach on the pitch was clear, cohesive, incisive, and unpredictable.

“I don’t think we’re the type of team that’s just beating up teams and going out there and trying to play as physical a game as we possibly can,” said Farrell. “We’re actually thinking our way pretty smartly through games.”

Ireland’s decision-making, line-running, and passing have all been of the highest quality as Mike Catt’s impact as attack coach has become far more obvious, while they have benefitted from the power and detail being delivered by their forward pack under Paul O’Connell’s guidance.

andy-farrell Farrell has many reasons to be pleased. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Farrell has been delighted by his assistant coaches’ efforts to get to this point, with John Fogarty running the scrum and Simon Easterby in charge of defence after moving from the forwards coach role when O’Connell joined earlier this year.

“Paul is so diligent in his work to make sure that everything is ticked off and it happens seamlessly when you end up coming unstuck,” said Farrell in reference to how Ireland managed the late withdrawals of Conan and Henderson before the Argentina game.

“How that marries up with Mike and what he’s doing with the set-piece plays, that’s exactly the same thing. If somebody goes down in a funny position [from the lineout], then it’s very hard for players to be cohesive if one is just off-track. Obviously, them two are working very well together.

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“Then I think our scrum is outstanding. John is doing an outstanding job and the lads thoroughly believe in everything that he’s coaching. It could have been a tricky time, the transition with Ports going to loosehead, and it’s not been. It’s been seamless and it’s all credit to John for doing that.

“Then we get to Simon. I’ve said it all along in the three games I thought our defence has been outstanding over the course of this month and that says it all really.”

Ireland have had a happy camp this month. That’s always the case when a team is winning, of course, but this has been a consistent theme since Farrell took over. Players enjoying heading on international duty more than ever.

32-year-old O’Mahony deemed this month “the most enjoyable one of my career so far” and Farrell was delighted to hear that feedback.

“It’s great because it’s the culture that you’re trying to bring together,” said the Ireland boss. “The reason that they say that is because we’re constantly judging them on how to be a good team-mate and what it takes to be that. 

garry-ringrose-celebrates-after-the-game-with-josh-van-der-flier Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s not just about friendship, it’s about how you prepare, how you help each other prepare, how you turn up for training on a daily basis and to want to get better and help your team-mates.”

Now, Ireland’s players return to provincial duty with the Champions Cup kicking off in two weekends’ time after this weekend’s United Rugby Championship action.

But the Six Nations is just over 10 weeks away. Farrell will hope his team can pick up where they left off when they open their championship at home to Wales on 5 February.

“We don’t win a trophy for the Autumn Nations Series but hopefully it will stand to us in regards to how we’ve grown together as a group for the next time we meet up, and that’s the Six Nations,” said Farrell.

“We all know what the Six Nations means to everyone and I suppose everyone always says it and we adhere to the same thing – you’re only as good as your last game so we’re pretty pleased with how the last month has gone.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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