Andy Farrell admits Aviva full house ‘makes us tick’ ahead of Wales opener

Head coach named strong side for Six Nations opener against defending champions

Mack Hansen of Connacht makes his debut for Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations opener against Wales. Irish coach Andy Farrell praised him at the team announcement saying ‘he’s a smart rugby player, he makes things happen’. Video: IRFU

A year on, and even a few weeks on, all has changed, changed utterly. The return of a full Aviva Stadium, the anticipated arrival of 8,000 Welsh fans, along with expanded gatherings in homes and pubs, has added an extra frisson of anticipation. This is how the Six Nations was always meant to be.

Seeking to lift spirits in empty stadia during restrictions was one thing, but for those involved, the dynamic is altogether different.

"It's massive to us. It's everything to us," said Andy Farrell on the eve of Saturday's opener at a capacity Aviva Stadium (kick-off 2.15pm, live on RTÉ 2, ITV and S4C).

Tadhg Beirne’s brilliant form with Munster sees him start in the secondrow against Wales. Photograph: Ryan Bailey/Inpho

“We’re so grateful for the Government to make this decision to allow the people back in. It makes us tick massively because there’s a reason why you do things and one of those reasons is that we want to connect with people.


“We want to connect with the people who are watching at home. We want them to be proud of their team with the way that we’re playing. We also want to connect with the people who are at the ground and who have made the effort to come and watch us and paid their money for their tickets.

“We’ve missed that as a team. We got a taste of it in the autumn and we all know what the atmosphere was like then. For us to continue that connection with the people is huge. We want to it grow as much as it possibly can do.”

Farrell was speaking after naming a strong team, the core of which helped extended Ireland’s winning run to eight as they seek to generate invaluable momentum against the reigning champions.

In restoring four players who were ruled out from the win over Argentina – Bundee Aki, Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park and Jack Conan – as well as Andrew Conway, Farrell has effectively resorted to all bar two of the starting XV in that epic 29-20 win over New Zealand.

The exceptions are Tadhg Beirne, whose red-hot form was always likely to see him restored, and the debutant Connacht left winger Mack Hansen.

Dan Sheehan's dynamic carrying has also been preferred to Rob Herring on the bench, although the latter "had a calf injury as well which set him back a week or two".

Indeed, far from a clean bill of health, it transpires that the game has come too soon for Iain Henderson, who should be fully fit next week, and with Keith Earls undergoing a scan for a hamstring strain and Robbie Henshaw having missed a few days training with an abductor strain, so Ryan Baird and James Hume have been named on the bench.

For all their absent grandees, Wales only make two changes from the side which beat Australia last time out, with Will Rowlands restored in the secondrow and Johnny McNicholl on the wing, with Josh Adams making his first Test start at outside centre after 35 caps on the wing in a reshuffled backline.

Wales will likely revel in being cast as underdogs again, and when it was put to him that former English outhalf Stuart Barnes had declared them the best team in the world on current form, Farrell chuckled wryly.

“The best team in the world? Stuart Barnes? Well, that’s saying something. Anyway, that’s a different story. But listen, it’s all irrelevant to us. Nothing really matters. We’re just concentrating on ourselves. We want to get better, we expect ourselves to get better and if we come out and play the type of game that we want to play, then everything else just takes care of itself, doesn’t it?

“But we all know that [favouritism] is not how the game of rugby works. There’s two sides, two brilliant sides, going at it and the game will take its own course.”

Intent on “pushing boundaries”, much of Ireland’s sharper, more varied and high-tempo attacking game has been founded on the accuracy of their set-pieces and breakdown work, where the influence of forwards coach Paul O’Connell in continuing Joe Schmidt’s legacy has been palpable.

“He’s got a passion for it,” said Farrell with a knowing smile of O’Connell. “He’s on it. He’s obsessed with it, like his lineout. When somebody has a passion for that they tend to get their point across pretty well. Look, he drives the standards very well. He knows the standards that he wants. He doesn’t let that slip so everyone knows exactly where they are.

“There’s so many things that have to come together to get quick ball. It isn’t just about rucking, it’s about being in position early, looking at the opposition, what you’ve got, what’s they’ve got, good running lines, good tempo, good skillset. All of that comes into the mix and then I suppose the icing on the cake is the breakdown and being accurate.”

The next step on this Irish team’s journey to the 2023 World Cup is now, as Farrell put it, “a competition with a trophy at the end of it”, thus further putting themselves under pressure before a projected, three Test and five match tour to New Zealand.

Although Farrell has a much better winning record 14-0-5, or 73.6 per cent, than Pivac's, which is 10-1-11 and thus under 50 per cent, the latter guided Wales to last year's Six Nations title.

“We’d all love a trophy, we’d all love a trophy,” admitted Farrell. “Nobody would lie to that but at the same time, for us, success is pushing on with our game. It definitely is and I think trophies look after themselves in that regard.”

IRELAND: H Keenan (Leinster); A Conway (Munster), G Ringrose (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), M Hansen (Connacht); J Sexton (Leinster, capt), J Gibson-Park (Leinster); A Porter (Leinster), R Kelleher (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster); T Beirne (Munster), J Ryan (Leinster); C Doris (Leinster), J van der Flier (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: D Sheehan (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), F Bealham (Connacht), R Baird (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), C Murray (Munster), J Carbery (Munster), J Hume (Ulster).

WALES: LWilliams (Scarlets); J McNicholl (Scarlets), J Adams (Cardiff), N Tompkins (Saracens), L Rees-Zammit (Gloucester); D Biggar (Northampton, capt), T Williams (Cardiff); W Jones (Scarlets), R Elias (Scarlets), T Francis (Ospreys); W Rowlands (Dragons), A Beard (Ospreys); E Jenkins (Cardiff), T Basham (Dragons) A Wainwright (Dragons).

Replacements: D Lake (Ospreys), G Thomas (Ospreys) D Lewis (Cardiff), S Davies (Cardiff), R Moriarty (Dragons), G Davies (Scarlets), C Sheedy (Bristol), Owen Watkin (Ospreys).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times