Andy Farrell has plenty of challenges ahead of him as he embarks on his tenure as Ireland head coach but dealing with the criticism that is bound to come his way sooner or later is not one of them.
Ireland’s former defence coach stepped up to his first head coaching gig in Test rugby last month as predecessor Joe Schmidt was taking flak for the national team’s sorry quarter-final performance and heavy defeat to the All Blacks on October 19.
That criticism was hardly a revelation to the man who was an integral part of Stuart Lancaster’s coaching group that presided over England’s disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign on home soil and he knows there is more around the corner if his reign as Ireland boss hits troubled waters.
The former Rugby League Man of Steel is, however, ready and waiting for such a moment, and armed well enough to survive the next experience.
“I have had plenty of kickings, honestly,” Farrell said yesterday at the conclusion of a 24-hour mini-training camp at the Sport Ireland Campus in west Dublin, site of the IRFU’s new high performance facility.
“I have been involved in professional sport long enough to know what a kicking is and what really matters and I am big enough and ugly enough to be able to take that as well. I know what’s relevant and what’s not to us getting better as a team and that’s what matters really.”
As part of Schmidt’s coaching staff since the summer of 2016, Farrell has enjoyed far more highs than lows with Ireland and what excites him most with a Six Nations looming is the opportunity to keep the national team on an upward curve, in spite of the recent disappointments.
“Evolving. Getting better. The learnings, the ups and the downs, I am excited by it all because that’s the journey, isn’t it? That is the excitement part for me, not knowing where it is going, where the endpoint is and let’s see how we deal with that all along the way.”
The challenge in that, he said, was what it always had been, “about the performance and how we keep improving on a seasonal and on a weekly basis”.
Yet even at the start rather than the end, he will be looking for immediate rewards from his players, starting in round one of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations at home to Scotland on February 1. There will not be change for the sake of change.
Instead, Farrell wants evolution he, his new-look coaching staff and his players can be proud to stand over.
What does he want to see from his first campaign?
“Well obviously progression, that will be the key. Winning would be another one.
“But I suppose there’s many aspects of our game that we need to push forward with and that’s what you would expect when you review any season, really.
“So I would say the bigger picture stuff we want to improve in all aspects of the game.
“But we’ve got to make sure we stand for something, and hopefully that will be clear and obvious to everyone, really, without trying to progress too early on most things and standing for nothing.
“We’ll evolve our attack along the way, and that will probably be a longer process, we’ll keep adding towards that. Simon Easterby is going to take over the responsibility of defence and obviously I’ll be above that and helping with that, there’s plenty of stuff we can improve on our defence.
“Our attacking kicking game is something that can be improved, our set piece is... so there isn’t just one aspect of our game, we’ve got to make sure we get across most things.”
The knock against Schmidt in his final 12 months as head coach was that Ireland’s gameplan failed to progress once he had guided them to the top of the world rankings at the end of 2018 following a spectacularly successful year which had delivered a Grand Slam, series win in Australia and a home victory over New Zealand. Yet Farrell believes that criticism was irrelevant.
“I don’t think style’s important,” he declared. “I think there are more ways than one to skin a cat or win a game, it’s broader than just style.
“There’s all sorts of reasons why you would try to have a Plan A, Plan B and a Plan C.
“One, because of the cattle that you’ve got, so what best fits them? The opposition that you’re playing, what plan fits into playing that type of opposition, obviously the conditions on the day come into play but as the game’s evolving as we’re playing it in front of us, we’ve got to be good in the ‘what if’ scenarios, we’ve got to be able to adapt in many ways.
“We want to be able to play physical and abrasive, we want to be able to take it to the opposition physically, that’s what Irish teams have been very good at in the past and I’ve been on the end of that in 2007.
“But we’ve got skillful players, we’ve got smart rugby players, we’ve got players who have got a lot more in them to give and we want to be able to adapt to the game in front of us.”