Andy Farrell is unequivocal in his belief Ireland can still find a way to win this year’s Six Nations, but there remain several other questions about his squad he will have to address in the coming days.
Sunday’s defeat to England at Twickenham was more comprehensive and damaging than the 24-12 scoreline suggests.
While the home side’s failure to pick up the four-try bonus point that should have been delivered on the back of their dominant performance may have allowed Ireland to maintain hope of silverware, the manner in which Farrell’s team were overpowered and outflanked in the first 40 minutes of the game raised serious issues about their viability to compete with rugby’s biggest guns.
This was not a one-off experience against the English. This humbling followed two similar defeats under Joe Schmidt in 2019.
A sluggish start against a team able to hit the ground running at a much higher physical intensity was once again the crux of Ireland’s problems and Farrell will need every hour of this fallow week to figure out why his players failed to reach an equivalent pitch.
It is not as if Ireland did not know what was coming.
All last week, players and management spoke about the need to be nailed on in every facet of their game if their trip to London was to be productive, while the consequences of a failure to do that were writ large by all-too-fresh memories of Dublin a year ago and Twickenham last August.
Yet on Sunday evening, Farrell was still searching for solutions to why Ireland were 17-0 down at half time, never mind a duffed penalty kick from an off-colour Johnny Sexton.
“There are reasons why people get themselves into the game in a physical way, and most of that is through access,” Farrell said.
“Their tactics were pretty clear. They were wanting to get some field position but also to give the forwards something to hit, those high balls and kicking through, etc and making us exit.
We sent our forwards into some dark alleys at times and I suppose they gained confidence from that. I thought we gave them access to be able to do that.
“The bits of learning that you would look at. I mean, why does somebody get so much access to be able to win those clear balls in the air? When we kick off, why don’t we get them man and ball, you know? When they kick off, how are they able to kick the ball straight out? So it’s little bits like that which add up to giving them access into the game.”
Food for thought indeed, but Farrell can still find solace in the standings after round three. With a trip to France in the last round, there is the chance of not only spoiling a potential Grand Slam for Fabien Galthie’s resurgent young side but also repeating Schmidt’s 2014 feat of claiming the title in Paris, and at the first attempt as a Test head coach.
That belief remains rock-solid, with his players now also driven by their Twickenham hurt.
“One hundred per cent,” the Ireland boss said.
“We will take the learnings from this game and when a side is desperate to stay in the championship, take the learnings from why that gave them so much front-foot ball and a mentality that was a bit stronger than ours.
We’ll take the learnings from that and we’ll take the hurt as well. We’ll take the disappointment and again we need to make sure we get it to the last weekend.
For Ireland, England remain the unsolved puzzle, but with a home game against perennial wooden spooners Italy next on March 7, subject to the spectre of coronavirus, few on-field mysteries await and the chance to regather momentum is all too evident.
“We are in the same position as a few other teams and we need to be disappointed with this,” said Farrell.
“Some might say the scoreline flattered us, but at the end of the day it is a 12-point margin, we could have rolled over against a side that were desperate today in England, but we didn’t, and we gave ourselves as good a chance as any.”