One of the reasons for a degree of optimism about Ireland's forthcoming tour to South Africa, even though it will end with a record 17th Test in a 52nd week of a World Cup season, is the sheer presence of Andy Farrell as the new defence coach.
By all accounts, what was to have been a gentle first work-out under his watch in Ireland’s two-day camp at Johnstown House last month was akin to a first day at school as players sought to impress their new teacher in an energetic session.
For the majority of the players, and the coaching ticket, Farrell brings a fresh voice and a welter of experience from his time as England and Lions coach, as well as a palpable enthusiasm for his new job. Yesterday he made it clear he will not seek to reinvent Ireland's defensive system and paid due respect to the strong base he inherited from Les Kiss.
“We have a fantastic coaching team here that looks at the whole bigger picture, but my department is defence and it’s going to be tested in South Africa, so I’ve got my hands full.
“But the challenge is one that really excites me because I feel that defence is about attitude, and we want to create history so we have to show some real proper attitude. We’ve got a couple of days in camp to get our systems sorted out etc, and then we’ll talk about the mentality to go into the cauldron like Joe [Schmidt] said and win a game in South Africa. That’s my role and it’s up to me to put a stamp on that.”
Referring to Kiss’s lengthy spell as defence coach, Farrell added: “It’s not as if I’m coming in at an average base. It’s a base that’s very high. Les has done a fantastic job. But I need to change a few things, not much, a few things and put my own stamp on how I’d like the defence to be for Ireland. I’ll keep that to myself for this moment in time and let the players know first and see if we can bring that onto the arena in South Africa.”
This will be Ireland’s first tour to South Africa since 2003, underlining Farrell’s assertion that “you probably get one chance in your career to go on tour to South Africa”.
Recalling England’s tour there in 2012, he added: “It is different in the Southern Hemisphere. It is like a religion over there. The atmosphere is special. I was over there watching at the time and it doesn’t really get any better.
“What has to happen to create that history that we talk about is that we have to have belief. On that tour England could have won a game – 100pc they could have one, if not two games. They drew over there and you come back kicking yourself. This is one opportunity within your career to create history that’s so special.”
His desire to work with Joe Schmidt and be part of the Irish coaching ticket emanated in large part from the respect built up in opposition when Farrell was with England.
“They’ve always got a good plan and they’re very hard to beat. Very hard.”
Mindful of how Ireland almost beat the All Blacks in the second Test in Christchurch before being beaten 60-0 in the third Test in Hamilton at the end of the last World Cup season four years ago, Schmidt himself intimated that there would be a degree of squad rotation on this tour.
“We’d love it if it was consistent across three performances, as long as that consistency is at a very high level. It’s going to be difficult. One of the things will be that we’ll have to utilise the squad we’ll take and that will present challenges in itself; we may have to break up combinations and try new combinations.”
In citing performances at Test level above reputation as a primary consideration in picking established outside backs, Schmidt acknowledged the outstanding form of the Connacht outside trio of fullback Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy.
“Tiernan has had an in-and-out season with injury; he’s only just got back and really started to get a playing rhythm. I had a discussion with him, and think he did exceptionally well on Saturday,” said Schmidt, who also noted his back-to-back performances against Glasgow. “He’s done some very good things at the back of the season.”
Pointing out that "this time two years ago" Adeolokun "was playing 1B for Trinity", Schmidt added: "What Pat's done to get those guys together and make them as competitive as they are speaks unbelievable volumes for what he's capable of doing with that team. And what those players have done to make themselves as competitive as they are is outstanding. I do think we'll see some of those guys start to emerge," he said, while also noting the form of Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney.
“It’s a very competitive position for us. If they were secondrows they’d probably have a better chance.”