The official changing of the guard from Joe Schmidt to Andy Farrell took place in Abbotstown on the Sunday before Christmas.
Hopefully, the choice of venue reflects the approach of the new management team as they pick up the pieces from the World Cup and start again. Carton House in Kildare has been home from home for the Irish squad throughout the Schmidt era but Farrell opted for something different for the launch of his plans for the Six Nations campaign.
While Schmidt unofficially handed over the reins at a meeting to conclude Ireland’s World Cup journey in Japan, this was Farrell’s first outing as the new commander-in-chief. Surrounded at the top table by new coaching additions in Mike Catt and John Fogarty, evolution was already underway.
To underline this new era further, a switch of job description for forwards coach Simon Easterby was also commissioned. He is now charged with stepping into Farrell’s shoes as the squad’s new defence coach.
Sitting attentively in the auditorium that Sunday morning, a new Irish squad, including eight uncapped players, giddily perched amongst the wider cast of 45. Change here too with the notable absence of an ever-present stalwart for over a decade in Rob Kearney. There was hope for the old guard also with the deserved recall of Devin Toner after his controversial exclusion from the World Cup squad.
Some view Farrell’s elevation as a poisoned chalice appointment given that he is tasked with following in the immediate aftermath of the most influential and successful coach Irish rugby has ever had in Schmidt.
Farrell has always struck me as a glass half full character, someone who sees opportunities rather than pitfalls. That approach should serve him well in the months and years ahead. Coming in on the back of a massively disappointing World Cup campaign, where the team looked stale in so many aspects when compared to the heroics achieved only 12 months earlier, a new direction is required.
The challenge facing Farrell is to convince the Irish sporting public that, despite the fact he has never sat in the head coaching seat before, he is the man with the capacity to deliver a new team and a new approach.
Everything we know about him suggests he is more than capable of doing just that. From the day he first laced a boot, he has proved to be a winner. He has presence and his achievements to date, on a number of fronts, mean he already has the respect of the key leaders in the squad.
He also has character and, like Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster, has rebuilt his reputation here in Ireland (and with the Lions in New Zealand in 2017) after England’s disastrous World Cup campaign in 2015.
There isn’t an experienced coach in the game who hasn’t had to endure major disappointments and serious setbacks. It’s part of the building blocks which make for a successful coach. Why are most of the best coaches in the game at present in their mid-fifties and beyond?
Losing the World Cup quarter-final to France in 2007 made Graham Henry a better coach. The key factor in him getting the maximum return from the lessons learned at that World Cup was the decision of the New Zealand Rugby Union to retain his services. Warren Gatland is another example of a modern coach who learned from adversity to achieve great things.
Farrell has already been part of an England and Ireland set-up to massively underachieve at a World Cup. He must now put the painful lessons learned on those occasions to good use for the 2023 event in France.
A good starting point would be a change in the mood music within the camp. It’s time for the smiles to return and, from the players’ perspective for a freedom of expression to be encouraged.
Writing in these pages after the World Cup former Munster hooker Duncan Casey — presumably on the back of discussions with some current players — painted a bleak picture of life within the squad.
“Players were notoriously terrified from the moment they set foot in one of Joe Schmidt’s Irish camps to the moment they left.
“They were genuinely petrified of making a mistake and feeling the wrath of Schmidt’s disapproval in front of their peers”.
All the best professional squads these days are notoriously self-critical. In my conversations with players, they have no issue with balanced critical comment in the media given that the self-analysis from within can be far more withering.
Farrell is now tasked with finding a balance between offering an opportunity to the senior players’ group to have an input into training and matchday preparation while still making it absolutely clear who is boss.
The players certainly knew who was in charge in the previous set up and while Schmidt has endured heavty criticism over the lost few months, many of those involved with Ireland since the New Zealander came on board in 2013 would do well to remember they wouldn’t have achieved anything like the success — and with it the rise in their personal profile and consequently off the field earnings — without the meticulous attention to detail and exacting standards set by their former coach.
That said, its time to move on and Farrell needs to be brave. There is a rich vein of young talent coming through the provinces, with Leinster leading the way. Many of those have the potential to become established figures in the Irish squad by the time the 2023 World Cup rolls around.
The most pressing call Farrell has to make is who he appoints as captain in succession to Rory Best. The safe choice would be to elevate Johnny Sexton to the role but it remains unclear whether or not be will be available for the opening games of the championship.
Given the quality of young back rowers emerging, Peter O Mahony is in a battle to retain his starting position which is far from ideal when appointing a captain. James Ryan is undoubtedly a future captain of Ireland so why not just let him get on with the job and learn the trade with the 2023 World Cup in mind.
Some of the most successful captains in the game were elevated before their time — specifically Brian O’Driscoll, Richie McCaw and Will Carling. All grew into the role to prove impressive leaders albeit in different ways.
Warren Gatland had no hesitation in naming Sam Warburton captain of Wales at 22 years of age.
He went on to become only the second player in history, after Martin Johnson, to captain the Lions on successive tours.
Ryan will be 24 next July and has the respect, maturity and, crucially, is guaranteed a starting position in the team to grow into a highly effective international captain. Farrell will have observed his growth within the group over the last two years and is in the perfect position to decide on Ryan’s state of readiness. Given that Farrell is also the youngest player ever, at just 21 years and 4 months, to captain the Great Britain Rugby league side, he will hardly be averse to making such a big call on the basis of age.
Once that decision is made, Farrell must then focus on the two other key areas — selection and style of play. By all accounts, Ireland are prepared to expand their options and approach under new attack coach Mike Catt but with limited preparation time between now and the opening two games against Scotland and Wales, that will take time. What will be more visible is the selection tweaks Farrell makes to the side, especially in the back row and across the backline. With the long-serving Kearney already deemed surplus to requirements after a remarkable career, Jordon Larmour looks set to kick start Ireland’s ambitious new look by being handed the No 15 shirt.
The long-standing half-back partnership of Sexton and Conor Murray is already under threat due to Sexton’s latest injury woes. Murray will be acutely aware that his starting position is now under more pressure than at any time since he exploded onto the scene in the lead up to the 2011 World Cup with James Cooney clearly the form No 9 in the country.
The emergence of Caelan Doris, Max Deegan, Scott Penny, Jack O’Sullivan, and Will Connors from the Irish U20 ranks over the last two seasons has already added further depth to an area of great strength in Irish rugby and will increase the element of competition even more over the next few seasons.
Bear in mind too that Dan Leavy, whose loss since the horrible knee injury he sustained last season has been incalculable, will hopefully be back in the selection mix soon meaning the likes of O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Jack Conan, Rhys Ruddock and Josh Van Der Flier all face serious challenges to their ranking in the back row pecking order.
I am very much in the glass half full category when it comes to the post-Schmidt era for Irish rugby. The pressure will be on Farrell to deliver but, based on everything we know about the big man to date, he deserves the time and space to make his mark.