Ireland turn the page from one era to the next this week as the 2020 Guinness Six Nations gets underway with not just a new coaching team but also a fresh player leadership group.
Andy Farrell’s reign as head coach is up and running in preparation for the home opening-round visit of Scotland to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and the new boss has already implemented a number of changes to the set-up he served in as defence coach and has now inherited from Joe Schmidt.
From team announcements on Tuesdays rather than Thursdays to avoid, in his own words, “paralysis by analysis” to fresh ideas from incoming attack coach Mike Catt, the transformation has been decisive and that extends to the playing squad and those who lead it from within.
New captain Johnny Sexton spoke last week about how both he and Farrell wants Ireland’s players to take greater ownership of the direction the team takes as kick-off approaches with his predecessor as skipper, the now retired Rory Best suggesting recently that the leadership group let slip their grip on the final days’ prep during match weeks at last autumn’s World Cup as the coaching messages and detail increased.
That would suggest an information overload and loss of clarity which both Sexton and Farrell are keen to avoid.
Speaking on Tuesday at the conclusion of a week-long training camp at Quinta do Lago on Portugal’s Algarve, the head coach revealed that Sexton had a new leadership group to begin his captaincy with and spoke of a fresh onus on the next generation below the senior squad members to increase their responsibility levels.
So joining Sexton and Peter O’Mahony are 20-somethings Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Garry Ringrose and James Ryan.
“I said to them yesterday that I’ve never seen the three of them speak as much,” he added, referring to Leinster trio Furlong, 27, Ringrose, 25 and Ryan, 23.
“They’ve really come out of themselves and took ownership, because I want it to be a little bit inclusive.
“It’s their team, they’ve got to make decisions on the pitch. They’ve got to make decisions on what they want to do off the pitch as well, to buy into things properly.
“If we can try to build on things together, and obviously if there’s a decision that needs to be had, I’m firmly in that seat to be able to do that. But I like to speak to the players, I like to get a view on where they’re at. I like them to understand the direction in which we’re going.
“I suppose if you ask those questions and you ask them often enough, they actually will believe that it is their team and we’ve made a good start with that.”
For tighthead prop Furlong, membership of the group had not been on his radar until Farrell sounded him out on the possibility.
“I wouldn’t say I was looking to do it but he asked me if I would be interested in taking it. I said yes,” Furlong explained.
“I think about the game a lot and there are certainly bits which are very, very new to me and take me out of my comfort zone, which is good for me in some ways. It’s something that I’m looking forward to getting more into and learning, seeing how it all unfolds.
Ryan, who skippered the Ireland U20s to the 2016 Junior World Cup final, had been touted as a possible successor to Best but the lock appears happier to be honing his leadership skills under Sexton’s captaincy.
“The more time you spend in it, the more comfortable you get,” Ryan said. “It’s great for me learning off some of the other guys. Learning off somebody like Johnny, we can all learn loads off him in the leadership group. He’s an unbelievable captain for Leinster and I’ve no doubt that will transpire with Ireland.
“He just drives things and he thinks about the game in a bigger picture way. He’s always looking for us to get better and when things aren’t where they need to be, he’s always forthright enough to be able call us out on it or bring us up on it. It’s great getting that exposure in the group to learn off guys like him.”