Six Nations: Finale could reach excitement levels of Croke Park in 2007, says Andy Farrell

Coach hoping home crowd will play their part as Ireland chase first Grand Slam in Dublin on Saturday against a chastened England

Matches between Ireland and England tend not to be insignificant and this Saturday’s Six Nations finale will certainly be no different. For Andy Farrell, a case in point has always been one of the abiding memories of his career, and this is despite being on the receiving end of a record defeat in an Ireland-England fixture.

That was, of course, Ireland’s 43-13 win over England at Croke Park in 2007, a must-win game for the home team for all manner of reasons.

“I’ve used it time and time again throughout certainly my coaching career with regard to performing when it matters, because the Irish team at that time had to win because of the occasion in Croke Park and all that, [and] how they attacked that game and pushed themselves from the first minute,” Farrell said on Thursday.

Recalling Ireland’s first attack from the kick-off, the Irish head coach added: “They played wide from their own 22, rather than just being conservative. They were playing to space and how they went after that game, getting the balance of the right emotion but, at the same time, playing the game that was in front of them was fantastic in regards to dealing with the crowd and occasion.”


Farrell also knows that as Ireland chase just a fourth Grand Slam in history, and first to be completed in Lansdowne Road, be it old or new, that the home crowd can be an influential factor come Saturday’s 5pm kick-off. The roars generated by the Croke Park crowd that day assuredly registered a point on the Richter scale, but Farrell believes those levels can be reached again.

“It definitely will be. It’s a few thousand down, isn’t it? I’m sure that the commitment from the crowd with the excitement and the buzz around Paddy’s weekend etc is going to get the 50-odd thousand up. What’s Croke Park, 80-odd thousand it? Let’s see,” he said, smiling.

Ireland are embracing the need to focus on this game as any other, while acknowledging that it is anything but. Farrell bore a contented look after naming a starting side with just three changes, as Robbie Henshaw and Ryan Baird replace the unlucky Garry Ringrose and Iain Henderson, and Jamison Gibson-Park is promoted to the starting line-up.

But they are exactly where they want to be. Farrell confirmed that this weekend’s scenario, and the possibility of sealing a first Grand Slam in Dublin, was discussed among the squad at their pre-Six Nations camp in Portugal.

“We’ve earned the right to have a go at that, so we know how much it means to the Irish people and their support has been unbelievable for us, and I hope there’s a bit of a two-way thing on Saturday where we try and get them going and they try and get us going as well. You can feel the buzz.”

Approaching his last Six Nations game, Johnny Sexton has likened this to another “final” and, having been involved in plenty of those in his time, the key according to Farrell is: “Getting the balance right. To me, desperation is an illness. You want to stay away from that. You can’t be accurate if you’re desperate; being calm enough to be yourself, being controlled enough to be accurate when it matters is a temperament that we’re all chasing.”

It’s almost an incidental, in this game of all games, that the World Player of the Year becomes the fifth member of this squad to reach the 50-cap milestone during this Six Nations on Saturday.

“He’s actually goal-kicking this weekend,” joked Farrell after Josh van der Flier’s lineout throwing against Scotland. “Wow, what a couple of years for Josh. You go back to his story, all this is because of competition for places in Leinster and in Ireland. Will Connors coming on to the scene, etc. Josh was one of the guys who put his hand up, had a word with himself and said, ‘this is up to me.’

“Since he’s done that, he’s never looked back and he deserves all the credit he gets, because he’s unbelievably diligent as far as his preparation is concerned. How he attacks every game is just phenomenal to watch, isn’t it? It’s fantastic that he is able to play his 50th game – it’s pretty fitting isn’t it – a game like this.”

Irish rugby is flourishing with the addition of the English coaching ticket since they completed a World Cup cycle. Invariably, with so many of the travelling media in situ for Farrell’s press conference at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday, he was asked about his singularly rewarding move to Dublin in 2016, even if this weekend must be another conflicting one for his wife, Colleen, and their three youngest kids, Elleshia, Gracie and Gabriel.

“Well, when you make a decision, you commit, and that’s it. And, you know, I’m very lucky that it wasn’t just me that was committed. It was my wife and kids as well. Because whether you think it’s a close flight or connected or whatever to the UK, it is still living abroad. It is a big move, you know, kids out to a new school.

“It was a commitment to the family, and the more I look back on that I’m forever grateful for them showing me that commitment, because it was just because of me, wasn’t it?”

No sooner had RFU CEO Bill Sweeney openly expressed their high regard for Farrell, and noted his contract would expire after the 2023 World Cup, than Farrell signed on with the IRFU for another two years. And he has no inclination to head back to England.

“No, why would we? We love it here. We’re loving life here,” he said, before pausing. “And the rugby’s pretty good as well.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times