With the nightmare of the World Cup in Japan finally consigned to history as the Andy Farrell era of Irish rugby got underway, it is somewhat ironic that the new boss’s very first tournament will have a direct influence on Ireland’s next World Cup campaign in France in three years’ time.
Amid the media frenzy that marks the opening round of Six Nations action, the announcement last week by World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont caught many by surprise and passed largely unnoticed.
Beaumont confirmed “with the World Rugby Rankings determining the bands for the RWC 2023 pool draw, it promises to be a fascinating year of men’s international rugby with every match counting towards seeding at the end of the November test series, which is exciting for fans”.
Farrell now has the added pressure that every Ireland result this year will have a direct impact on that pool draw. Ireland currently rank fifth, behind Wales in fourth place. A top-four ranking would mean avoiding South Africa (first) and New Zealand (second) at the pool stage, and make life a bit easier — at least in theory.
Then again, we thought Ireland had a brilliant draw last time out with Scotland and Japan the nearest ranked sides but that didn’t work out as planned.
Given that Wales currently rank ahead of Ireland, a victory next Saturday would prove invaluable to Farrell on two fronts.
Right now however, the new Irish coach has enough on his plate.
In keeping with recent tradition, the opening round of Six Nations action failed to set pulses racing. The fact that the result of Ireland’s game remained in doubt right up to the final whistle kept everyone in their seats at the Aviva Stadium as Scotland chased a draw that would have proved a major setback to Irish ambitions.
End game apart though, it was a pretty dull match.
Elsewhere, with Warren Gatland back in New Zealand, where would we be without Eddie Jones? Without the noisy England supremo, the media room would certainly be a duller place.
You could always rely on Gatland to lob in a few grenades, especially in the build-up to the Ireland game. In his absence, Jones had the stage to himself in the lead into round one and boy, did he take it.
His comments surrounding the “brutal physicality that England would bring to Paris”, questioning the ability of the young French forwards to deal with it, backfired spectacularly.
They were not only disrespectful but had a galvanising effect on a young French squad who didn’t need much in the first place to hit the ground running. Players cringe when the management come out with bait like that.
Such was the enthusiasm of the French public with the way new head coach Fabien Galthie and his management team appear to go about their business, Stade de France has been sold out for all three games for some time.
Jones’s comments only served to get the French public behind their team even more.
As recent as last season, the stadium was up to 20,000 light for home games. The French rugby fraternity had grown tired of the continual failure of their national side.
It’s now 10 years since they last won the Six Nations title — Ireland, England, and Wales have all won the championship on three occasions since — but, even before last Sunday’s captivating dismissal of the World Cup finalists, Galthie had already shook a sleeping giant on and off the field.
It helps Galthie massively that French Federation president Bernard Laporte, the man who outsmarted the IRFU in pilfering the hosting of the 2023 World Cup, and the last top-class coach the French team has had, is determined to lead the French back to former glories.
The relationship between the French Federation and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby has never been better. Having won the last two U20 World Cups, the management are at one in fast tracking a host of talented youngsters into the national squad.
Galthie has been smart also, retaining a core of seasoned internationals in their mid to late 20s to steady the ship.
That said, there is only one player over 30 in his wider squad. His young charges were already jumping out of their socks before Jones poked the bear, not to mention the wider French rugby audience.
Watching former Clermont Auvergne and French hooker Benjamin Kayser commenting on BT Sport last week on what Jones had said, it was clear he was incensed and looked ready to play himself at that juncture. He had no doubt that there would be a reaction from the French forwards.
How right he was.
The most impressive aspect of the French performance was that they were well short on what they are capable of delivering, despite leading 24-0 after 55 minutes, due primarily to the fact that on a miserably wet afternoon, a potentially explosive back line was afforded very few real attacking opportunities.
One of the most exciting players in the game at the moment is Racing 92 centre Virimi Vakatawa, and he had little or no opportunity to show what he is capable of. When that happens, watch out.
With Italy in Paris next weekend, France have a brilliant opportunity to build on their promising start before their first big test on the road, against Wales at the Principality Stadium, in round three.
France have a long way to go before reversing the slide that has led to some really embarrassing defeats over the last decade. With a quality coaching team finally put in place, the future is bright, regardless of the outcome in Cardiff. What is clear is they have the players to become the major force in this championship once again. The Six Nations will be a far better tournament for that.
Right now Andy Farrell and his coaching team face two searing examinations before even contemplating the challenge Ireland face in Paris. Amazingly, despite the appalling inability of the Welsh districts to compete with their Irish counterparts in the Guinness PRO14 and in Europe, Wales have no inhibitions whatsoever when it comes to playing Ireland.
If anything, their inability to compete on an equal footing in those tournaments fuels their players determination even further when it comes to the international stage. Wales have achieved great things recently, despite the many challenges faced in their domestic game.
Gatland understood the makeup of the Welsh players intimately and constantly pressed the right buttons in getting the very best out of his charges across successive Six Nations campaigns and at World Cups.
Remember South Africa, despite all their pace, power, and brutality, only beat Wales 19-16 in the World Cup semi-final, beaten by a Handre Pollard penalty with just four minutes left to play.
The challenge for new Welsh coach Wayne Pivac is to mask their shortcomings with the same degree of cleverness that Gatland managed while building his own template for success.
Despite scoring 42 unanswered points against an Italian side who defended like novices last weekend, Wales were less than convincing in several aspects of their play.
That said, Farrell has issues to address at the set piece, the maul, and in the contact area. On top of that, he has lost the form centre in Ireland all season in Garry Ringrose.
In promoting Robbie Henshaw off the bench, Farrell is hoping the former Connacht Guinness PRO12-winning midfield pairing of Henshaw and Bundee Aki will reconnect seamlessly.
Unless Ireland address their deficiencies in the contact area, both in carrying when they have the ball and in defence when Wales have it, they will be beaten by a side that succeeded spectacularly in closing them down in Cardiff last season.
A performance on par with the game against Scotland last weekend will not be sufficient.