IRELAND’S implosion at the World Cup sent ripples in all sorts of directions.
Brian O’Driscoll made for Japan for the knockout stages to play his part in ITV’s tournament coverage only to find himself, like Paul O’Connell, more or less benched for the back end of it all after Joe Schmidt’s side made the most inglorious of quarter-final exits.
It left the former Ireland captain with plenty of time to chew the fat and among the people he bumped into was Andy Farrell, with whom he had “a good chat” before the final, when the latter’s son, Owen, featured for England against South Africa.
O’Driscoll and Farrell shared chapters of their previous lives together. The new Ireland head coach wasn’t long converted from league to union when O’Driscoll faced him on the field and the pair were part of Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions setup in Australia in 2013.
Farrell was defence coach on that tour and he impressed O’Driscoll with the clarity of his messages and ability to motivate his players.
The Englishman is a likeable figure who is expected to loosen the screws on his current players on and off the field.
“It’s a tricky balance because he has to be authoritative and stamp his style but also give players an opportunity to players to express themselves,” said O’Driscoll.
It appears as if they felt confined in terms of the way they wanted to play the game and it became too structured and we became too readable and it became too obvious.
“So you’ve got to give players a chance, particularly some of the footballers that we have when you look at key positions again, Conor (Murray) and Johnny (Sexton) spring to mind, their ability to read the situation as it unfolds, and when you have players that are capable of doing that, who aren’t robotic and aren’t just system players, you’ve got to play to their strengths.”
The mental reflex that makes O’Driscoll reach for Murray’s name first is no accident.
There is an appetite for sweeping change in the air after the disastrous campaign in the Far East and across 2019 in general but it’s not one that is likely to be sated.
O’Driscoll knows just how tight the windows are at test level.
Farrell got his chosen players together for a one-day camp on Christmas week and is currently trying to shoehorn in as much as he can without muddying the waters at the pre-championship camp in Portugal.
Farrell is getting his head around the head coaching role, Simon Easterby has switched briefs, John Fogarty is still getting his feet under the table as scrum coach, and Mike Catt has swapped the Azzurri for Abbotstown.
Is it any wonder there might be a tendency to lean on old sweats like Murray?
“I don’t think AndyFarrell’s opinion is going to be swayed by what people want. It’s how he feels can bestdeliver for him and his new Ireland team and I know he thinks very highly of Conor. He’s been on two Lions tours with him. He’s been coach with Ireland for a number of years and seen how he’s delivered.
“Also, you’ve got to look back to the players who have delivered for these coaches in the past. Conor has done that. Joe Schmidt used to do it the whole time. If in doubt, 50/50, go to guys that he… Leinster guys a lot of the time because he won trophies with them. They delivered for him.
“I anticipate Andy will do the same thing, the tried and tested will get the benefit for now, with an opportunity to bring others into the equation and try and strike thatbalance.”
IT’S not that everythingwill be the same.O’Driscoll sees GarryRingrose and RobbieHenshaw filling the centre and Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale again hugging the wings but with the likes of John Cooney blooded in the coming months, too.
Evolution will be the watchword with the team’s attacking style too. Farrell needs to move this Irish team on but he has to do it while picking up more than the odd win along the way.
Three home wins in this Six Nations seems to be the minimum short-term requirement.
Beat England or France on the road as well and he’s in serious business.
“I think we’ll see more of a focus on unstructured play.It will be interesting to see what they’re looking at in training and how much focus is on set-piece compared to the rest of the game, which infairness is now about 85% of the actual game. In ourtime, we were very set-piece driven.
“The game has gone away from that. You see that with Leinster and other sides and they say that’s where their focus is.
“It’s like golf, you focuson the short game because that wins and loses tournaments for you. It’s the samein rugby.
“You have to focus on the things that are going to win and lose you games.”