At the time of writing, Ireland are three from three in the 2023 Six Nations Championship. Following on from the uber successful tour of NZ in the summer, Irish rugby is sure in a good space. As the old cliche goes, winning is very much a habit. But what has caused this successful turnaround?
To my mind, the key factor is Andy Farrell. Farrell has brought so much to the Irish set up. Consistency of performance hit new heights under the venerable Joe Schmidt but, against the odds, the former rugby league man has pushed standards even further. The proof is there for all to see. So, what has Farrell done?
The primary thing that Farrell has provided is the infusion of a winning mentality. Sure, Ireland has a group of talented and ambitious players, but it’s the mind-set of the group that impresses most. These guys expect to win. Not in an arrogant way, but they fear no-one. And they’re relentless in maintaining and improving standards of performance.
Here, Farrell’s influence is key. A product of that splendid Wigan rugby league side of the ’90s, Ireland’s coach was brought up in an environment where winning was not just desirable but essential. It was mandatory. That side was marvellous. And Farrell was an integral component of it. You see that relentless attitude within the current Irish playing group.
What’s wonderful as well is the brand of rugby currently played. It’s pleasing on the eye and there’s a massive emphasis on individual and collective skills. Schmidt’s side was the archetype of systemic rugby, where everyone was meticulously drilled within their roles. It was functional rather than overtly creative.
Farrell’s side plays differently. The players clearly have licence to play what’s in front of them. If it’s on, they routinely go for it. And, delightfully, the offload is no longer an endangered species. Don’t get me wrong. It’s all curated within a definite shape and structure, and the team is as well organised as it’s ever been. But it’s not restrictive. There’s no straight jacket at play.
And they’re doing it with smiles on their faces. This Irish team is evidently enjoying its rugby. Work is an opportunity to improve, grow and develop. It’s not onerous in any way. The players are clearly relishing the challenge.
One example of the elite nature of this environment is the way in which Ireland have coped with injuries. A succession of players have gone down, but replacements have slotted in seamlessly. For instance, Stuart McCloskey has thrived with his belated chance at a regular run. Similarly, Finlay Bealham has excelled covering for the once indispensable Tadhg Furlong. Players have slotted in and out pretty effortlessly.
Such understanding only happens within a highly competitive and organised environment. All credit goes to the coach. The Schmidt era was the high water mark for Irish rugby. And, yet, his successor has taken performance to another level entirely. Success is never guaranteed in any walk of life but, heck, it’s coming pretty regularly these days at Lansdowne Road. We’ll soon see if the precious Slam lands, but these days it’s very unwise to bet against Andy Farrell’s men.
P.S. The Rolling Stones are reportedly collaborating with the surviving Beatles on their new album. Some are surprised at the move. But these guys have always been great friends. The supposed rivalry was always over hyped and as much a media invention as anything else. After all, it was Lennon and McCartney that gave the Stones their first major UK hit.
What this project ends up as, who knows. But even if McCartney and Starr only play on a couple of tracks, how fantastic is that? I’m excited to see what materialises. Because we’re running out of time to make this type of history. Bring it on!