As another year ends (as crazy a year as any of us can remember), we’re all in a bit of a reflective mood. This is as true in rugby as anything else. In a year that’s seen matches cancelled, competitions curtailed and fans exiled, the sport, at all levels, finds itself asking some existential questions. If that sounds hyperbolic, it’s also true of the unique times rugby finds itself in.
So, perhaps we can give Andy Farrell a bit of a bye-ball as we survey the first full year of his tenure. Given all that’s happening in the world, normal standards don’t apply, right? True. Except time stands still for no-one and for the ever keen and motivational Farrell, the honeymoon period is over. Now, more than ever, coaches must find a way to deliver and garner revenue for their employers in rugby’s darkest hour, financially.
And it’s not gone too badly. Irish performances under their head coach have been creditable. Results have been on the upper end of what we expect. Yes, England have remained frustratingly out of reach with their slick, power game, but most other opponents have been within Ireland’s reach. As regards England, they just have a stronger team at present. These things go in cycles.
More worrying, is the apparent inability of the Irish pack to dominate the biggest games at the highest level. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a truly dominant performance-probably the last time was Ireland’s historic win over the ABs at the Aviva in 2018. The likes of Caelan Doris and James Ryan are superb young players, with massive potential, but you sense a lack of dog in the current squad. Where are the Paul O’Connells in today’s crop? Then again, such legends only emerge once a generation.
And that’s the rub. Farrell and his coaches can only work with the raw materials at their disposal. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, how many current Ireland players would get into a World XV and/or a Lions starting XV? How many are at that level? I can think of: Ringrose, Ryan and Furlong (when fit). There aren’t too many others. Alas Sexton and Murray, while still very important, are past their peak at this stage of their Test careers. Sad but true, I think.
Considering the above, has Farrell delivered or fluffed his first year? I’ve seen some criticism of the lack of evolution in playing style since Schmidt left. Not entirely fair. There’s been new patterns on display and, at least, an intent to play with more width and invention. Although Ireland’s attack had got so blunt at the end of the Schmidt era, it’s hard to go backwards in that regard! As discussed, results have been okay and the coaches can only work with the players they have.
The jury is still out in terms of whether Farrell is the right man for Ireland at this juncture. Remember, this is his first head coach gig in what is, to all intents and purposes, his second sport. It’s easy to forget that! And a man so passionate, driven and ambitious is almost certainly worth sticking with; at least in the short term.
Maybe a deeper truth emerges. We can now appreciate how Joe Schmidt over achieved with this group of players in recent years. The golden generation is long gone and the nucleus of Schmidt’s team is past its peak for those that have not retired. I hate the term, but this is a transitional phase. Perhaps expectations should be corrected on that basis.
P.S. It’s been a strange old year for everyone. 2020 is like the year that never got going. It started normally enough, but then took a turn none of us predicted. It’s been tough, weird and interesting. A period that none of us will forget. And we’re not out of it yet, of course. 2021 offers hope but there’s no guarantee it’ll be better, at least not for a while. Lockdown, as tough as it is, teaches us a lot about what’s really important. Despite the challenges, it’s quite nice being cocooned with our nearest in dearest-in small doses anyway!
With the Covid vaccine being rolled out, we at last have hope things will return to the normality we all remember prior to March of this year. How we all crave that! This isn’t a usual end of year reflection. So much to digest and process from 2020. My lesson? The vast majority that worries us is irrelevant in the great scheme of things. We spend so much of our lives fretting and worrying about stuff that doesn’t really matter. I believe we’ve all woken up a bit this year. It’s the little things that count.
Happy New Year!