Gordon D’Arcy: Farrell’s challenge is getting player buy-in to incremental change

My major worry about Ireland is correcting the defensive flaws that are increasingly evident

Head coach Andy Farrell says he is looking to James Lowe, who has qualified to play for Ireland on the three-year residency rule, to bring an "extra dimension" to his side's play ahead of the Leinster winger's international debut. Video: VOTN

Transitional periods are rarely smooth. At least, come Friday night, Ireland are facing a Wales team in a much deeper hole.

One might be inclined to brand the lack of a CEO and recently departed defence coach as a crisis. The shadow of Warren Gatland darkens Welsh preparations more than the residue of Joe Schmidt’s influence.

At least Ireland’s former coach isn’t selecting the Lions squad. Joe’s only keeping tabs on the refs.

Being a rugby coach is a ridiculously demanding job at the best of times. Following the greatest guru either nation has ever known is an enormous challenge.


Wayne Pivac and Andy Farrell should be equipped to cope. They have the coaching skills and – we presume – the man management capabilities to find safe passage out of a treacherous 2020/21 (double) campaign.

I remember Matt O’Connor following Joe into Leinster. How can we forget?

O’Connor landed before my penultimate season as a professional and followed me out the door the next summer. I thought I’d seen it all after 17 years in the game but the last lap offered a salient lesson in how not to replace greatness.

Matt would be forgiven for learning next to nothing from an experience that proved a spectacular failure, so much so, that the decision makers pulled the plug in our preseason before the 2015 World Cup.

Matt’s attempt to undo his predecessor, rather than build on the platform left behind, ruined any chance he had of being successful (especially given that Joe only moved down the road).

A new coach needs to win players over to their methods, incrementally to avoid players reminiscing about the way things used to be done. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and rather than focus on the transition process Matt became annoyed with players’ inability to change habits that delivered three European trophies in three seasons.

That is the challenge facing Pivac and Farrell. The problems are only visible when the pressure comes. You know, scenarios like chasing an eight point deficit with 10 minutes on the clock.

Athletes are creatures of habit. Put them under stress and they will automatically revert to embedded practices. All the coach can hope is players eventually default to his strategic prompts and cues.

The Ireland squad needed a change of voice at the top and Farrell is a breath of fresh air when compared to Schmidt but that does not make the crossover any easier. Nor does it guarantee success for Ireland. Far from it.

One given in the Leinster squad that Matt ignored was around numbers into rucks. The Joe rule was three bodies are needed to guarantee quick ball. We would sacrifice numbers elsewhere because speedy possession allowed our special players to do lasting damage.

Matt encouraged us to make decisions on the fly, and in all honesty we struggled with the responsibility of this vague instruction. There could be one or five in a ruck, and eventually the lack of structure caught up with us.

Former Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor in 2015. Photograph: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

We were dependent on a clarity that Matt wasn’t selling. He offered ideas from a playbook that stretched back to the brilliant ACT Brumbies side in the 1990s. Geordan Murphy even handed Ireland coach Declan Kidney the Leicester attack notes, written by Matt, before the 2011 World Cup.

Kick, pass, run option

I remember one specific move. It was similar to how Leinster attack under Stuart Lancaster off set play; the ball is moved from one side of the pitch to the other, where the winger or fullback is presented with a kick, pass, run option.

The intent is to manipulate the opposing back field. It was a three-pass play; scrumhalf to me and I pull the ball back for the blindside wing who either used his fullback or skipped the pass to the other winger. The move relied upon spatial awareness and accurate passing with a maximum of two steps taken by each player. Otherwise the defence would shut you down.

Matt was unable to communicate how the winger needed to hold his depth in order to catch and pass. We tried and tried but never executed it properly in training. This was on us more than Matt. We’d seen the move done by Leicester and the Brumbies. We were sold on its effectiveness. But the coaching of mechanism continually failed due to an assumed level of understanding from him. Instead of holding our hands he instructed us to get three passes away before the rush defence snuffed it out. “Work it out, fellas.” We never worked it out. Schmidt would have broken the parts down to the basic components and made sure everyone knew their role.

That’s as much a criticism of the players as it is of the coach, but the lack of resolution was always going to come back and haunt us. There were multiple examples of this. His difficulty in communicating his vision wasn’t made any easier when most of the squad were regularly teleported back to the good old days in the Irish camp with Joe.

I imagine similar issues have crept into Farrell’s sessions this year. I presume he expected as much with assistant coaches who worked under Schmidt for six long, mostly fruitful years.

That’s nothing compared to Pivac’s difficulty moving the Welsh squad past Gatland’s style of management (the Welsh boys love him), particularly with most of them trying to catch his eye to make next summer’s plane to South Africa.

That sounds worse than Irish difficulties under Farrell trying to expand horizons with talk of “feel and flow” during a game while also keeping some of Joe’s microscopic attention to detail.

A year ago Wales lost to the Springboks in a World Cup semi-final because they ran out of fit bodies. They finished fourth in the tournament and sent Gatty on his way with a third grand slam. In the meantime, they have lost to everyone that counts, including Scotland at home for the first time in 18 years.

Bryon Hayward was unable to fill Shaun Edwards boots and Sam Warburton left the camp to pursue business opportunities.

The coach hasn’t a hope if the players do not buy into his methods. Farrell gets this. Ireland are trying to manipulate opposing defences to create mismatches. It is a simple enough game plan where they are being asked to think on the fly more than replicate precise movements.

Maybe this Ireland team, the James Ryan generation if you will, having come through Noel McNamara’s under-20s system, are primed to play the Farrell way.

They have the skills. They have the intellect. My major worry is correcting the defensive flaws that are increasingly evident. Again, this is more of a Welsh problem but with Twickenham back on the horizon it also needs solving by Ireland.

Dr Johnny and Mr Sexton

I stood beside Johnny Sexton for 10 seasons. Regularly, after a mistake, I felt the lash of his tongue. I’d also absorb his frustration of others or himself (he holds his actions to a higher standard than what he expects of others). You have to push back when he crosses the line. This happened often.

That is Mr Sexton; utterly uncompromising with an insatiable thirst to succeed that garners respect and trust from his teammates. After games he would amble over for a chat. As lovely a fella as you are likely to meet. That is Jonno.

Ireland’s Johnny Sexton leaves the field dejected during the match against France. Photograph: ©INPHO/James Crombie

The Johnny Sexton non-apology-apology will run its course sooner rather than later. Perhaps on Friday night with trailing by eight points entering the last 10 minutes. Billy Burns is next up as understudy. He won’t be the last.

Sexton didn’t apologise for his behaviour (it doesn’t count if you say it isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time you say sorry) or to directly quote the recent quarrel between Supreme Court judges: “There would be legitimate public scepticism about the genuineness of any such apology.”

Sexton was completely within his rights to be disgusted with the decision to replace him at such a critical juncture in the 2020 Six Nations but the captain needs to set an example that players can follow. This is the view being formed by reasonable people and not by a media frenzy.

Sexton can follow his predecessors Keith Wood and Brian O’Driscoll by leading in a traditional sense. Or he can go his own way. The criticism ringing in his ears from Keith and particularly Brian may further cement a stubbornness that has delivered a lot of silverware for Leinster and Ireland.

Johnny doesn’t hold grudges and he always apologises to “those that matter” after Mr Sexton says something awful in the heat of the moment. Ireland still need him, all of him in the 10 jersey.