Andy Farrell has urged his Ireland players to seize the opportunities that lie ahead in unprecedented times for Test rugby by telling them this is the season to be at your best.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have brought a life-changing lockdown experience for rugby players as much as everyone else but when they finally get back to competitive matches later this month it will kick-start a hectic schedule that will climax with a British & Irish Lions series against the world-champion Springboks in South Africa next August.
Ireland head coach Farrell’s immediate objective will be to rebound from a defeat to England at Twickenham last time out on February 23 when the 2020 Six Nations resumes on October 24 with a penultimate-round home clash against Italy. An unlikely championship in his maiden season is still on the cards, although Ireland must travel to France for the final game while the English have a less daunting trip to Rome and are favourites to regain the trophy on October 31.
Yet the likelihood of a November tournament featuring the Six Nations and, reportedly, Fiji and Japan, offers the chance to participate in a unique, once-only competition, as the personal contests for Lions places takes place over the course of the rest of the 2020-21 season. Speaking yesterday during an online call with the media, the Ireland boss said he wanted his players to embrace the new and put their best foot forward.
“We want to keep adapting for the better as a group but it is unprecedented times and players, sporting fans, everyone around the world, they’re never going to forget this year are they?” Farrell said.
“What we’ve got in front of us, there are some really juicy tournaments in there that are coming up that will make the memory of the Covid experience one that they can reflect back on and say ‘I played my best rugby within that time’.
“We’re never going to forget this period. There’s a tournament that’s going to be played that will probably not get played again. There’s European games going into that tournament and then going into interprovincial games over Christmas, then going into the Six Nations then going into PRO14 and Europe and the Lions. It’s amazing.
“If there was ever a year to be at your best this is the year, so this is what drives us on.”
Farrell conceded that a possible six games in the proposed autumn Test window will stretch resources and require him to rely on an extended squad, but again, the former Wigan Rugby League hero said this was an opportunity for fringe players to make their mark and showcase their talents to Lions head coach Warren Gatland as potential 2021 tour bolters.
He was asked how comfortable he was with the depth in Test-quality players at his disposal given the increased risk of injuries when the PRO14 resumes on August 22 after what will be a five-month break.
“I think you’re right regarding injuries,” Farrell agreed. “We expect a few at the start, just from watching other sports returning to play and the game in New Zealand and Australia etc. “We’re always looking to grow the pool anyway. We’re always looking for players to put their hand up and show that they’re international quality.
“With the hectic schedule, you’d think that more players would get that opportunity and it’s up to them isn’t it, to put their hand up and show that they are international quality.
“It’s a hell of a year isn’t it, which finishes in what I’d imagine is everyone’s dream, if you’ve got aspirations to play international rugby, I’m sure your aspiration is to be a British and Irish Lion at the end of it as well.
“I know what Warren is like, if somebody grabs the bull by the horns at the start of the season and continues that for a long old period of this season, anything is able to happen. “We all love finding new players that can adapt and show their worth in the international scene and I’m sure that for all countries really, I’m sure we’re going to see a few bolters.”
Farrell said he was looking forward to the eight-nation tournament being planned by Six Nations Rugby.
"If it does get announced officially, I think it's super-exciting. A new competition, two new teams in the competition, a different format for everyone. It's what everyone wants to see - a competition that's going to be World Cup-like in a way.
“Along with the two games we've got left in the Six Nations, it could be that we're together for eight or nine weeks, which is great for us moving forward."
There will be problems ahead, as the old and new seasons overlap and provincial demands clash with those of the Test team and Farrell said the ability to adapt to fast-changing situations was key to success.
“I think (dipping into an extended squad) could be forced upon us anyway from the start regarding the European final is the week before we get stuck into Italy week. We would want to try and come together a little bit before that anyway, it is going to be a completely different kettle of fish for ourselves, it could be from the off if Ulster and Leinster get into that final and win that final.
“It’s going to be different from the start, we could be picking from two provincial teams or maybe three or, unfortunately, we might be able to pick from four. We’ve got to be adaptable from the start.
“If we’re together for eight or nine weeks that would almost certainly say that we’d need a little bit of a bigger squad. We don’t know what’s going to happen gameday either, if somebody fails a (Covid) test for example, you might need to carry one or two extra players with you than you might normally would. All these plans are in place but we’ve got to be adaptable to all of them.”
Andy Farrell wants James Lowe to return to rugby in top form and prove he is deserving of an Ireland call-up.
The wing, 28, qualifies through residency in time for the November internationals after moving from his native New Zealand in 2017. With 28 tries in 43 Leinster appearances, Lowe could make his Test debut in the proposed eight-team tournament featuring the Six Nations, Japan, and Fiji.
Established wings Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour, and Jacob Stockdale have the chance to press their claims against Italy and France in the remaining Six Nation fixtures but the hope is Lowe can stir the selection pot a little more.
“He’s been great,” Farrell said. “He’s been a great tonic for Irish rugby really and he’s played some outstanding rugby over the years. Like everyone else, we’ll see how he comes back and how he performs in the early parts of the season and there are plenty of big games in which he can put up his hand.
“He is in the same position as everyone else. He is available from the beginning of November and we need to make sure we get selection correct accordingly and he will be part of our plans in the same way as everyone else is.
“He’s a big guy, he’s strong, he loves getting on the ball as much as he can, he comes off his wing, he is hungry for the ball, he doesn’t like getting tackled that much, he has a great left boot and he is good in the air as well.
“He’s a great all-round player. I’m sure he can see parts of his game where there is room for improvement as well. Hopefully we can see him in top form so he can push his claims for selection.”