I was not at all surprised to hear Andy Farrell talking about the importance of “Irishness” this week. It is something I picked up on before the start of the tournament when Farrell was repeatedly talking about how Ireland had to stand for something. In other words what was their raison d’etre? International rugby is so congested at the top. On any given day, anyone is capable of beating anyone else and the Six Nations is even tighter. I genuinely believe that in international rugby it is no longer enough just to want to win. You have to have a reason. We saw it in the World Cup with South Africa. It was obvious what the Springboks stood for. They were all about fighting for hope and change in South Africa and that was far more powerful than that of their rivals.
Farrell is now trying to work out Ireland’s reason for being and there are parallels with when Eddie Jones took over England. Before the 2016 Six Nations Jones spoke of the need to get back to the strong English tradition of having a good set piece. He had come in after a disastrous World Cup campaign but rather than make wholesale changes in personnel he kept largely the same group of players but set about altering the mindset. Granted, Farrell was already part of the setup under Joe Schmidt, and Ireland’s World Cup campaign was disappointing rather than disastrous, but he is doing the same kind of thing with largely the same group of players. Like Jones, Farrell has already set about bringing external voices into the group. Training camps can be very insular places so the benefit of having people like Bono or Paul O’Connell in Ireland’s case, or Arsène Wenger or Dave Brailsford for England, is huge.
We have heard from a number of Ireland players lamenting how regimented things were under Schmidt, how that affected them during the World Cup and how, under Farrell, things have already changed for the better. I think it’s a tough balance, though. Let’s not forget how impressive Ireland were during 2018. They could not sustain it for another year, as numerous postmortems have shown, but in part is that not up to the players? It is like how we often talk about England needing to get to half-time to adapt and turn things around. It is no use Ireland players – and players with a lot of caps and a lot of experience – getting to the end of a World Cup and then complaining. The best and the most successful teams have enough player power to implement changes needed in the middle of the storm, not at the end of it.
Farrell will know that but I’m sure he has listened to the feedback from the players and it was interesting to hear him acknowledge this week how he thought Ireland had dropped off from 2018 in terms of physicality.
One would suspect Schmidt realised that, as demonstrated by his decision not to take Devin Toner to the World Cup and pick Jean Kleyn instead. Toner has come straight back in but the early signs of Ireland’s first two matches are good in terms of reaching those levels of physicality.
I look back to Ireland’s win at Twickenham two years ago and the things that stood out were their fantastic set piece, their ball retention, their creativity and how utterly belligerent they were in sticking to a gameplan. At the moment I think we’re seeing those traits but in addition a bit more variation in what they are doing in the opposition’s 22. There seems an added layer of subtlety to their attack. They can be belligerent, as shown with Tadhg Furlong’s try against Wales, but contrast that with Johnny Sexton’s against Scotland. There were a number of pick-and-goes but then there were some lovely hands, changing the landscape for defenders, which is so hard to deal with when you are close to your own tryline, and Sexton ghosted over. Even with Jordan Larmour’s try against Wales, it was poor defending but I was pleased to see Ireland not be so reliant on the pick-and-go. They trusted their backs and their decision-makers to paint a different picture and it paid off.
It is early days but Mike Catt will be having an influence. Catt is a very affable guy, huge on detail from running lines to depth and running speed – he was a brilliant distributor in his playing days and he reads the game so well. Italy probably wasn’t the best shop window for him to showcase that sort of quality but now he’s working with a higher calibre of players and, on top of that, he is a new voice in the Ireland setup which will be invaluable.
Every year I believe the third round of the Six Nations is the pivotal one. England are under huge pressure. They always are but this is their first match at home since the World Cup final. If Ireland get a result, however, it really does draw a line under their dismal 2019. The key areas will be the battle for the air, the battle for the ground and the emotional factor because there are so many subplots. Take the captains, for example – Owen Farrell and Sexton are so similar.
Owen is captaining England against his dad while Sexton is almost like the stepbrother in it all. They are both the emotional barometers for their respective teams and how they go about reaching the right levels without overstepping the mark will be of huge importance.