It’s only a moment since the end of the World Cup and the Six Nations is upon us. Such is modern life. It’s a sign of age. The time in between events gets shorter and shorter. Remember, as a kid, when it seemed a veritable lifetime between the summer holidays and Christmas? Now, one thing merges seamlessly into the other. Oh well! At least, we don’t have to wait too long for the big events to come around.
This is a critical tournament for Ireland. And I’m not indulging in hype. It is. After the acute frustration of yet another World Cup under-performance, Andy Farrell’s men need to re-establish momentum quickly and emphatically. Nothing else will do. Even a cursory look at the upcoming fixture list underlines just how difficult that task is.
It’s a tough one for Farrell. Ireland’s game plan and personnel clearly need to evolve and develop from the ultra successful, but now slightly jaded Schmidt era. We all see that. And yet Farrell has to win and do that consistently. Anything less costs him his job. The IRFU prioritise the Six Nations to such an extent, for historical and revenue reasons, tournament success is not so much aspired to but demanded.
That is Farrell’s catch-22. All the noise surrounding John Cooney (in imperious form for Ulster) and demands for wholesale changes in personnel and style of play must be seen in that context. Ireland’s new coach has limited room for experimentation, but not much.
The new man has to win, first and foremost. The evolution will be gradual. Therefore, to the irritation of the masses, there won’t be wholesale changes. It’s clear, however, that it’s not more of the same either, so the precise nature of Farrell’s influence will be fascinating to see in the next few weeks.
In all this, it’s important to remember this is Farrell’s first gig as head coach. It’s always difficult making the step up from lieutenant to general in any walk of life. And he’s doing it in his second sport! It’s easy to forget that. Of course Farrell has peerless credentials, the two-time Man of Steel winner coming out of that great Wigan side of the 1990s that set the standards in modern professional rugby.
No doubt, Farrell has added significant value since his transition to Union, from both a playing and coaching perspective. But that contribution as Union coach, for obvious reasons, has primarily been confined to defence. Now, as Ireland head-honcho, Farrell is in charge of the whole piece; attack, defence, forwards, set-piece and everything else in between. Despite his formidable reputation and experience, that’s a significant elevation.
The mood music coming out of Ireland camp recently is good. The players clearly think highly of their new coach and Farrell has the presence and charisma to galvanise his squad. Any gaps in the head coach’s skill-set are off-set by the quality of the people around him.
Mike Catt brings a wealth of experience and know-how to Ireland’s attack. An extremely versatile player who also played fly-half and fullback, Catt’s added most value, in a stellar playing career, to England’s best ever midfield. Granted, Will Greenwood and MikeTindall were the combination that won the World Cup, but their best rugby was played with Catt at 12.
We watch with interest what Catt’s influence means in practice for an Ireland team that needs to add strings to its bow in terms of creativity. Perhaps Farrell’s most important assistant remains Simon Easterby; a man who’s done much to solidify the Irish set-piece and provides vital continuity from the previous regime.
All in all, the positives outweigh the negatives and the early signs are good. Ireland’s new boss needs a little luck, of course, but that’s outside his control. While Ireland probably won’t win the championship, a decent win ratio, bolstered by a few really good performances and the infusion of some new blood will do nicely and keep the wolf from the door. It’s a strange one for fans. Even if the Six Nations goes well, a lingering question remains: why couldn’t they do it at the World Cup when it really mattered?
Picking up my theme from the start of the article, do you want to feel old? It’s now 20 years since a 21-year old Brian O’Driscoll scored a hat-trick in Paris to announce Ireland’s first ever global rugby superstar. Good lord! Caelan Doris is the same age now and has the potential to do great things in a green shirt. God speed, young man!