Andy Farrell on Ireland’s autumn: ‘A work in progress’
Iain Henderson set for scan on knee injury picked up in win over Scotland
Peter O’Mahony hugs Keith Earls after he scored in a try in the Autumn Nations Cup third-place playoff at the Aviva stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Scotland had arrived in typically bullish mood on the back of five wins in their previous six games. In the event, they were well beaten, and more comprehensively here than was the case at the start of the year.
Yet Gregor Townsend believed that “in the first 35 minutes we played some of the best rugby we’ve played all year.”
While it had been more like 30 than 35, it was Ireland’s response in the 10 minutes before reaching the sanctuary of the half-time changing room – when producing perhaps some of their best rugby of the year – which particularly pleased Andy Farrell.
“It actually was and that’s a big part of the game nowadays. The game is so pressured in many different areas that how you adapt to things not going perfectly well is a big part of the modern-day game.
“Set-piece is so pressured across the board, defences are so vigorous now and competition at the breakdown now is so tough that there are plenty of periods in all games that don’t go your way. How you deal with those situations is crucial and it’s a big part of the game.”
Not that Farrell was swinging from the chandeliers, and he actually used the same description of his team as Townsend had done with Scotland when asked to assess Ireland at the end of his first year at the helm.
“A work in progress, as I suppose it should always be. It’s well documented about the number of players we’ve used,” he said in reference to 42 players used this year, including 11 debutants, and 34 in this Autumn Nations Cup.
“A few injuries along the way, that’s influenced that, but at the same time we’ve grown the group. We’ve had a pretty diverse group during this time as far as maturity, age-wise, regarding international rugby. I felt that gap has really closed and we’ve made some massive learnings from that and that sends a massive statement overall.”
About the only blemish on the day was a knee injury for the unlucky Iain Henderson which will require a scan.
“Hendy will be going for a scan tomorrow, he had a knee injury but obviously it’s hard to assess straight after a game. He’ll be off for a scan in the morning and we’ll know more then.
“We had a couple of HIAs, James Ryan came off for an HIA and obviously Pete [O’Mahony] came off but went back on. So not too bad. Johnny [Sexton] had the dead leg so we’ll see how Hendy is tomorrow.”
With Sexton in mind, Farrell’s attack coach, Mike Catt, had quipped the day before the game that the secret to his longevity in playing until he was 39 was to avoid contact. But no less than Joe Schmidt, Farrell knows full well that there’s no point in asking his captain to do the same.
“One hundred per cent it’s in-built,” he said wryly of Sexton’s innate competitiveness, not least physically. “He puts his body on the line doesn’t he. They came down that channel pretty early doors, as every team does, and it’s certainly not just about Johnny but he fronted up massively.
“He prides himself on trying to slow that ball down so that the team can get round the corner etc and go after them second phase so that won’t change.
“I suppose the way we do look after him is that, you know, there were a couple of periods in that game when we were flowing attack-wise but we made some good yards down the touchline and started to be able to consistently play to space and continuing some good rugby is the way we look after both our halfbacks.”
Farrell and his assistant coaches had largely resorted to the core of the Grand Slam winning side of 2018 – 11 of the starting XV for the Twickenham coronation had showed up for the kick-off here.
Only Hugo Keenan and Caelan Doris of the newcomers have truly forced their way into the starting team, but both have done so with startling efficiency. Watching the maturity of Doris’s performances, it’s hard to credit that he is still only 22. Furthermore, this was just his sixth Test start and his first, against Scotland last February, lasted four minutes. He made up for it here.
“I was as impressed as you guys would have been,” admitted Farrell. “He is some man for taking on one-on-ones and carrying deep, five metres over the gainline. His leg drive and his ability not to accept a contact and just go down, he’s pretty special.
“He has learned a lot through this period, it has been a priceless time for Caelan to be in international camp for eight weeks, as it is for many others in our group.
“The learnings that those lads will take from this period is fantastic for us going forward. They’ve learned a lot about themselves and what it takes to be an international player, what it takes to perform in a really pressured environment.
“They’ll reflect on that massively and come back bigger and stronger in the Six Nations. ”