‘It’s his first rodeo as head coach’: How previous Ireland coaches compare to Andy Farrell

On the face of things, the similarities are unavoidable.

‘It’s his first rodeo as head coach’: How previous Ireland coaches compare to Andy Farrell

On the face of things, the similarities are unavoidable.

A foot in the door as assistant for four years, stepping up from within and giving a forward a debut in game one — Andy Farrell’s Ireland story is Eddie O’Sullivan’s too.

In February 2002, O’Sullivan was following in Warren Gatland’s footsteps, not as considerable a footprint as Joe Schmidt’s, granted, but the pressure lay heavy on the Cork man’s shoulders.

Ireland had flopped at the 1999 World Cup, but there were strong signs things were improving since. Now, with O’Sullivan the man in situ to reap the rewards — or shoulder the blame — things began to feel very serious indeed.

“It’s similar, in a sense, but the difference at the time is I was taking over from Warren Gatland, who was not just ‘stepping down’ so it’s a more seamless transition this time around, but it still becomes suddenly very real when you’re the main man,” O’Sullivan says.

“Being assistant coach, you focus on your own area, in defence or attack, you’re just a small part of a bigger picture.

“When you talk about things in the media, for example, you’re offering opinions but as head coach you’re responsible for everything.

“You can’t do everything, but you have to know about everything. Every final decision rests on your shoulders.

“There’s a lot of pressure.”

Turning up at Lansdowne Road almost 18 years ago to the day, O’Sullivan was caught up in a waveof emotion and determination.

Landing the dream job was always likely to come with such a potent mixture, but winding through the Dublin streets, he thought of those who were not around to witness it.

“My parents weren’t there — they had passed away, but they did cross my mind,” he said. “You do think twice — it’d be nice if they were there... and it was nice to think they’re looking down, thankfully I had other family around.

“It’s such a big change, you think about a lot, effectively you realise everything comes back to you and that’s not been the case before.

“But it’s the old story, this is what you wanted to do. There’s a lot of pressure but ultimately you want to get off to wining start, it makes things a hell of a lot different if you get that first win, and I’m sure Andy is thinking the same.”

O’Sullivan consciously “stepped back” as the days counted down to kick off, trying hard not to do too much for the sake of it, not to speak for the sake of speaking.

He’d already made a decision that made plenty of noise. Like Farrell today, the coach’s first selection was always likely to be put under a microscope, and giving 21-year-old Paul O’Connell his debut was the stand out call.

“When you’re in the situation you do what you believe is the best option to get a result, and Andy will want a big performance in mind against Scotland,” he said.

“He’ll park the big picture and think ‘if we win on Saturday then everything is fine’. He’ll be thinking what do we do to get that? What team will get the right result?

“The pressure really doesn’t play into that kind of call — I asked ‘what’s my best second row partnership’ and Paul was one of them on the day, with Mick Galwey.

“It was an easy decision...the fact it was my first game didn’t play into that, he was the form guy.

“I knew he ticked all the boxes — a potential captain. It was an easy decision.” O’Sullivan backs Farrell’s decision to hand a debut to Caelan Doris as another easy call.

He said: “He has played his way in there, to be fair.

O’Sullivan believes the players will have signed off on Farrell’s promotion, and there are few better situations in sport than a team that wants to play for its coach.

The past week has heard many positive reviews from players, after the Englishman made a conscious effort to change things up from the straightlaced Schmidt era.

Putting a personal stamp on things as a new coach is a typical move, but what turns out well is not always the genius move it appears in hindsight. Take Declan Kidney’s first Ireland camp, for example.

“We had a camp in Enfield before the 2009 Six Nations, and Deccie had planned to train and do fitness testing,” recalls former hooker Bernard Jackman. “It was a three-day pre-Christmas camp after a big block of European rugby and we all felt ‘jeez, more conditioning!’

“In Eddie’s time we’d a few trips to the Canaries for Christmas, some warm weather, quality training — it was great.

“Suddenly we’re in Enfield thinking of hard runs, being battered by lashing rain.”

As first impressions go, it wasn’t the best. Yet this team won a first Grand Slam just three months later. Thin margins.

“The weather was too bad, ironically, so Deccie decided to do goal setting, game planning and much of it was player-led,” Jackman explains.

“We spent a whole morning in workshops and it was an unbelievable day of everyone giving their feedback.

“Deccie canned the fitness test and we all left delighted with ourselves.”

The famous “clear the air” talk when Rob Kearney questioned the desire of Munster players in the Ireland setup, was less dramatic than has been reported.

In the provinces, you’d have had far more robust chats, but because it was the Ireland camp, and Leinster were pissed off with Munster’s success, I think the rivalry came to the boil a little,” Jackman said. “I think it happened by accident to an extent.

Farrell held his own clear the air talks in December’s “stocktake”, and the Englishman would be more than happy with an ‘accidental’ outcome to match Kidney’s.

A nine-point win over France in Croke Park in February 2009 marked the first day of the Munster man’s reign with a win, and while a Slam, with away games in London and Paris, maybe too much to expect from Farrell this year, victory today could lead anywhere.

“It’s a big week, for him, his first rodeo as head coach, but this is still a very good team, with some very good players,” O’Sullivan said.

“If they play to par, they’ll have enough to beat Scotland, and then Wales in Dublin.

“If we win the first two and win in Twickenham, things could get rosy very quickly indeed.”

No pressure, Andy.

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