Donal Lenihan: Andy Farrell must prepare to jump from famine to a feast activity

I have no interest whatsoever in horseracing yet, starved of live sport, I found myself watching the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday afternoon. Strange times indeed.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell delivered two home wins in the Six Nations, but now faces the serious task of having his side prepared for five internationals on successive weekends in the autumn. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell delivered two home wins in the Six Nations, but now faces the serious task of having his side prepared for five internationals on successive weekends in the autumn. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

The blanket ban on all major sports across the globe has served to highlight the seriousness to the general public of the challenge facing our medical experts and dedicated practitioners more than anything else. In that alone, sport is playing its part. No doubt it will also do so when this pandemic is defeated and normality, or some semblance of it, resumes.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. That certainly rang true when studying the crestfallen appearance of new Ireland coach Andy Farrell, taken at the press conference immediately following the announcement that Ireland’s final game of an already truncated Six Nations campaign against France in Paris, was postponed.

With the Italian game in Dublin also falling foul of the increasing impact of the Coronavirus, Farrell was left in limbo. In the job only a matter of months, after a thoroughly underwhelming World Cup campaign, picking up the pieces from the fallout of the equally disappointing recent visit to Twickenham has had to be suspended.

Ireland are not scheduled to play again until July 4, when they take on Australia in Brisbane.

Given the circumstances surrounding the spread of Covid-19, who can say with any degree of certainty if the proposed two-test series against the Wallabies will take place?

Given the prospect of being tasked with playing tests on five successive weekends between October 24 and November 21 next, it amounts to a feast or a famine for Farrell.

Any gains from having the squad together at Abbotstown recently will be well and truly diluted by the time they get together again.

At least that period was used constructively in reviewing the defeat to England and consigning it to history.

Right now, it’s time to move on even if nobody can say how much rugby, if any, the players will see between now and the end of the season.

Asking players to face Italy, France, South Africa, Australia and Japan on successive weekends next autumn appears to fly in the face of World Rugby’s regular dispatches on player welfare. But those results also have implications for Ireland’s ranking for the 2023 World Cup pool draw scheduled to take place in Paris in the week after the game against Japan.

There is nothing Farrell can do about that now as he reflects of his first Six Nations campaign at the helm. Given I felt England carried too much firepower along with having a clear blueprint for playing against Ireland, the England captain was always likely to emerge the happier of the two high profile Farrell’s leading their respective charges in Twickenham.

Based purely on my expectations in advance of the tournament, Andy Farrell delivered the necessary two home wins over Scotland and Wales that launched this season’s campaign. On the evidence of what we have seen of Italy in the championship they too would have been dispatched with an all too familiar ease. Therefore three wins from four before heading to Paris would have felt about right.

Despite the fractured nature of the 2020 tournament, it’s clear that England remain a step ahead of the rest, despite the failure to bag the two four try bonus points that were clearly there for the taking against Ireland and Wales on successive outings.

With a visit to Rome their only remaining obstacle, England are firm favourites to win the Six Nations, even if Ireland were to beat France at the Stade de France next October. With another Triple Crown and championship in the bag, Eddie Jones, who gets more obnoxious with every outing, can claim to have fulfilled his brief.

The strange comments he made about referee Ben O’Keeffe and his ridiculous assertion that Manu Tuilagi’s reckless tackle on George North when referring to the quite obvious red card issued by the official as “absolute rubbish”, only served to reinforce my recent comments that Jones would be less than disappointed if the RFU terminated his contract early and paid him off.

Even Tuilagi, who was immediately remorseful, apologised to North and pleaded guilty in his hearing, must have been somewhat embarrassed by Jones’s utterances.

If anything, the crass ignorance of his coach could have influenced the judiciary panel into issuing a longer ban than the four weeks handed down to the Leicester Tigers centre.

While Farrell will feel nothing but a nagging frustration from his stuttering maiden voyage, France’s Fabien Galthie has every right to feel pretty satisfied with the progress made by his young charges, despite their implosion against Scotland last time out.

Even when playing nowhere near the levels witnessed in the impressive victories over England, Italy and Wales in their opening contests, there is every reason to feel that the French could well have kept their Grand Slam aspirations alive in Murrayfield but for indiscipline.

Playing 55 minutes with 14 men was always going to be a step too far for this inexperienced team, especially after losing their in-form out half Romain Ntamack for only seven minutes of action. As anticipated, despite the vast strides made to date, this refreshing French side is far from the finished article.

That said, in terms of building for the future, Galthie has already stolen a march on all his rivals.

Of the four new coaches in this season’s tournament, Wayne Pivac faced the biggest challenge.

After all, Wales entered the tournament as the Grand Slam champions and finished fourth at the World Cup. Warren Gatland delivered 12 years of unprecedented success and had clearly over-achieved over the course of his reign.

Fellow New Zealander Pivac was already feeling the heat before last weekend. Losing three Six Nations games on the trot, for the first time since Gatland took over, meant the focus and pressure on him heading into what, at that stage, was the only game left standing, against Scotland last Saturday.

Quite how the WRU were still going full steam ahead in hosting that contest in front of 70,000 people, in the hothouse that is the Principality Stadium when the roof is closed, beggared belief.

Confirming the fixture was going ahead at 9.30am on Friday morning only to reverse the decision by 2pm showed scant disregard for the estimated 10,000 travelling Scots. It didn’t reflect well on the Six Nations either. Like his Irish counterpart, Pivac finds himself in an unwelcome quandary.

Gregor Townsend, who despite his fractious high profile fallout with star player Finn Russell, was on the verge of delivering a third successive championship win in what would constitute a very decent return for the Scots. He too will harbour regrets.

Even more so when one considers what might have transpired in Dublin had his new captain Stuart Hogg finished what should have been a straight forward grounding of the ball for a try at a crucial stage at the Aviva Stadium.

At least Townsend can draw satisfaction from his side’s last outing against France. For Farrell and his new coaching team, the opportunity to move on has been delayed until his charges next take to the field. At this point in time, who can say when that is likely to be.

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