Gerry Thornley: Andy Farrell building something special on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland foundations

Ireland coach has created an environment where players will go that extra bit further

Indeed it sure isn't easy following a genius, and in Joe Schmidt's case the most successful Irish coach heretofore of all. Witness the quartet of managers who have attempted to follow Alex Ferguson. But Andy Farrell has maintained and fine-tuned the foundations laid by his previous boss, not least in hiring a rugby brain and Schmidt devotee as sharp as Paul O'Connell.

To some, Farrell had been tarnished by the anti-climactic finale to the Schmidt era, but as the defence coach in that ticket he had an insider’s knowledge of the Irish squad. He had been well primed for the job and had his own ideas.

After pretty much a lifetime as a high-achieving team leader or coach in both codes, he understands team dynamics, and appears to appreciate that sometimes less is more. In this too Mike Catt is a kindred spirit.

They haven’t been overly prescriptive or intensely demanding of the players all the time. The squad have become closer as a group and that manifests itself on the pitch, not least in the way they defend for each other, even to the last play of three successive Tests when they are leading by 53-7.

In empowering them and in creating this family-type feel to the group, Farrell has created an environment where the players will reciprocate and go that extra bit further. It helps that he’s both a renowned motivator and yet easygoing, and the players will also go that extra yard as a result.

Along the way, Farrell has also subtly rebuilt the side, without satisfying the constant craving for wholesale changes and the latest new things.

This autumn series has added to that rebuild significantly.

Andrew Porter’s return to loose-head has been a huge success, giving one of the nicest lads in Irish rugby more time on the pitch as a scrummager who carries and scores tries, has a big work ethic, who cleans out as well as any of them, and is lethal in the jackal.

Rónan Kelleher has effectively come of age as a Test match animal, having come from second-choice hooker last season to be the main man, and this has been just as transformative. Tadhg Furlong isn't part of the rebuild, but he has taken his Lions form to another level with his amalgam of brute force and midfield creator to such an extent that you wouldn't swap this all-singing, all-dancing, all-Leinster, all-Irish frontrow for anyone else's.

Rare talent

For Furlong read Jack Conan, while the power, pace, footwork and handling skills of Caelan Doris would have made him a Lion last summer but for his concussion issues. But it’s great to see such a rare talent now fulfilling his vast potential.

Jamison Gibson-Park’s quickfire service and decision-making has been key to the rapid tempo, and likewise the Leinster and Irish system has taken James Lowe’s performances to a new level. With that mighty left boot, offloading and finishing, he has become a significant cog in this team. The graph of Hugo Keenan – a very composed, clever full-back with superb anticipation – continues to rise.

Perhaps the biggest boon was Joey Carbery nailing those kicks against the All Blacks and backing it up with that familiar smoothness last Sunday

Then there's a clutch of newish young internationals coming all behind them, like Dan Sheehan, Craig Casey, Harry Byrne and Robert Baloucoune. There's a nice balance to this Irish squad, for in addition to the infusion of dynamic and athletic young players, some of the older guard such as Sexton, Peter O'Mahony and Keith Earls have evidently been rejuvenated.

There's the middle tier too, with Garry Ringrose back to his best, not just running with that elusiveness and strength of his, but also passing, supporting and getting second touches too.

Perhaps the biggest boon was Joey Carbery nailing those kicks against the All Blacks and backing it up with that familiar smoothness last Sunday. As Stephen Larkham reminded us in these pages last Saturday, the gifted Carbery was still there. It was clever management by Farrell and Catt to leave him on for 80 minutes and also demonstrate what an invaluable option it could be to have him as a second playmaker a la his penultimate season with Leinster.

Undoubtedly Covid was a factor in the Six Nations’ strong showing against the vanquished Rugby Championship teams. Home crowds were that bit more impassioned, and the southern hemisphere sides that bit more weary after all that quarantining and travelling for months on end away from home.

Productive autumn

Another caveat in Ireland's productive autumn on so many levels is that it's been a good one for their Six Nations rivals, not least France. Their win over the All Blacks was sensational, helped as it was by no TMO referrals in a first half of just 44 minutes, and Romain Ntamack has probably settled their out-half debate.

His crucial try was one thing, but so too was one of the most daring counter-attacks in rugby history. The All Blacks had stormed back to trail 27-25. The hour was just up. Ntamack was behind his own try line when gathering the ball and facing his own end goal line. Pretty much any player would have just touched it down or kicked it dead. With extra sensory powers and speed, he veered and turned past Brad Webber, fended Richie Mo’unga and, still behind the try-line, accelerated around Jordie Barrett as if he was jogging on the spot before advancing to the 22 and giving a no-look pass to Melvyn Jaminet.

Ntamack wasn’t done. Off the recycle he flung a long pass to Cameron Woki, who straightened when perhaps he should have passed with two on his outside before being tackled short of the line. A penalty ensued. Jaminet made it 30-25 and, revived, France went on to win.

Antoine Dupont and Ntamack just might become the best French half-back partnership of all time and, to keep things in perspective, those two, their blossoming team and an engaged Stade de France lurk in this season’s Six Nations, and potentially in a World Cup quarter-final as well.

Some month. Just what the sport needed. But Farrell is building something potentially quite special.