Andy Farrell insists ‘the journey continues’ as Ireland start looking to opening night against France in Marseille

Ireland head coach says ‘you’ve got to roll with the punches’ in the Six Nations as it changes all the time

Andy Farrell has presided over a steady and ultimately memorable upturn in Ireland’s Six Nations fortunes, two third-place finishes and then a runners-up spot leading to a first ever Grand Slam coronation in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day last March. Now, having scaled the mountain top, ideally he wants Ireland to do so again.

However, akin to all sports, while winning a Grand Slam is a relative rarity – last season was only Ireland’s fourth in history – it’s a measure of the task facing Peter O’Mahony and company that only England three times (1913-1914, 1923-1924, 1991-1992) as well as France (1997-1998) have ever won back-to-back slams.

Indeed, Ireland have only won consecutive titles twice, in 1948-49 and 2014-15, which has been one of just five times the Championship has been retained since it became the Six Nations in 2000.

Citing the increasing competitiveness of the Championship, Farrell said: “What does success look like? We want to win every game and winning matters. I’ve never been one from shying away from that. I’ll say the same but we’re realists and we know that it’s difficult.

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“I suppose every team in the competition, as we stand today, would love to be in with a shout on the last weekend to be able to go on and win that. Obviously, there’s a lot of water that gets put under the bridge. You’ve got to roll with the punches, especially in the Six Nations, because it changes the whole time and that’s why we love it. It’s about getting ourselves to be in with a shout, however that may look, on the final weekend. That has to be what we’re aiming for.”

Talk of four-year cycles are de rigueur but Farrell eschews the concept. He sees the 2024 Six Nations as a continuation of the 2023 World Cup, albeit there is always a continuing evolution of the squad, with the added factor that selection has to be hard-earned.

So it is that the three uncapped players who will travel with the 34-man squad to Portugal on Wednesday for the pre-Six Nations warm-weather camp are deemed training additions, namely Sam Prendergast, Oli Jager and Tom Ahern, who was released from hospital on Sunday after being stretchered off with a head injury in Munster’s defeat by Northampton at Thomond Park the day before.

Noting that Ireland have capped plenty of players in recent seasons who are still relatively inexperienced, Farrell said: “Is this a new start? It’s not, because of everything we’ve been through. We want to continue to grow and continue to evolve our game, and you don’t do that by cutting the legs off of it and going again. Competition for places is premium and it has to stay that way. This is the start of a new Six Nations. I don’t buy into the four-year cycle that comes around World Cups.”

Explaining his rationale, Farrell added: “I’ve had plenty of experiences of that [four-year cycles] and not just the rugby scene but in general we learn in sport to completely cut the legs off something and starting again can damage not just the team but the individuals within that. So dealing with it here and now and the medium-term is very important to be able to fix the long-term in good shape, in my opinion. That’s my experience of it over the years.”

The squad came together on Monday, the Six Nations launch in the Guinness Storehouse thus delaying Farrell and O’Mahony’s arrival, but at least it was in Dublin for the first time ever. Lunch in the Gravity Bar thus offered a becalmed and panoramic view of Dublin after Storm Isha. Considering the disruptions caused to air travel it was quite an achievement to have all coaches and captains in attendance bar Fabien Galthié, Grégory Alldritt and Jamie George in attendance, with those three confined to Zoom calls.

To begin with the Irish squad had a review of their World Cup campaign, which ended in that acutely anticlimactic quarter-final defeat by New Zealand.

“We are open and honest in the sense that [as with] any type of victory in the past you make sure you use every opportunity to grow and try to understand it together. It’s the only way you move on, by addressing things and we’ll certainly be doing that over the next couple of weeks.”

Several players have spoken about that disappointment, with Andrew Porter going so far as to admit he might never fully recover from it. But Farrell said: “I’m over it. I don’t buy into ‘bittersweet’. I was unbelievably proud of how we connected with our fans and did it together.

“That, for me, continues by how we get back on the horse, and I’m not saying that will translate to another big ‘W’ in Marseille; I’m not saying that,” Farrell stressed ahead of an opening night against France in the Stade Velodrome next Friday week.

“We’re talking about being proud about how we go about our business, to want to keep evolving our game. The journey continues. If you look at what we’ve got, first game in Marseille, unbelievable stadium, unbelievable atmosphere, a lot of the Irish who had flights for the semi-final, I heard a lot of them transferred it to Marseille so they’re expecting a performance from us.

“We’ve got to stand up to responsibilities like that. Again, it doesn’t guarantee us being successful. We’ve got to show fight and then the rest of the Six Nations is ahead of us. You look at what we’ve got after that, the trip to South Africa and two games against South Africa. It doesn’t really get any better as an Irish management, as an Irish player or as an Irish fan.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times