Andy Farrell sees November series as start of World Cup countdown

Johnny Sexton set to win 100th cap against Japan in November series opener

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has confirmed that Johnny Sexton will win his 100th Ireland cap in the opening November international against Japan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has confirmed that Johnny Sexton will win his 100th Ireland cap in the opening November international against Japan. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The World Cup final is two years away today, and Andy Farrell has reaffirmed that more than ever before the Irish squad have been told this upcoming November series marks the countdown to France 2023.

“We should embrace it,” said Farrell. “It is two years off, a long way off, but the road ahead is brilliant for us. The challenges of this year alone are going to stand us in great stead to learn from those experiences. The three games we have coming up are a fantastic opportunity for us to take a step forward.

“The Six Nations is the Six Nations with the pressure to win a trophy and then we finish our season by going to New Zealand on a three-game tour and no Irish side has ever won over there. All these experiences are going to stand to us. We want the nation to be proud of us and why don’t we start embracing that challenge from here on in and use it going forward?”

Not that declaring this series of games against Japan, New Zealand (Ireland’s two conquerors at the last World Cup) and Argentina as a quasi starting point for the next World Cup is especially revolutionary.

After all, Joe Schmidt blooded Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale among others on the tour to the USA and Japan two years out from the last World Cup.

Farrell was asked if Ireland’s previous focus on the “day-to-day” of Test rugby over the World Cup had been a weakness.

“I don’t think it’s been a weakness, no.”

But against that, Schmidt started tampering with the World Cup in mind when switching Robbie Henshaw to fullback for the damaging 2019 Six Nations opener against England. Losing some of that game-to-game focus was something which he regretted although Farrell maintained “Joe was unbelievably focused on his daily activities every single day, every single training session and that will continue with us.”

In any event, there’s a balancing act here, as Farrell also acknowledged, while also embracing the challenge of the World Cup and using it to better the squad’s journey along the way.

“The pressures of players desperately wanting to represent their country in a World Cup is how it should be, and I’m sure some fall by the wayside over the next two years, but hopefully most of them will flourish.”

Farrell sees the upcoming games as the perfect springboard for the two-year build-in to the World Cup.

“We’ve got massive respect for Japan and how they play the game. They’ve got threats all over the field and we love playing against Japan. They’ve been together for a couple of weeks and had a hit-out against Australia, so we know the challenges there.

“The following week, in my opinion, we’ve got the world’s best team coming to the Aviva.

“Argentina have been playing away for five months and we know how physical and abrasive and emotional that game is going to be. This is perfect for us.”

After restricted attendances for the summer Tests, Farrell was “super excited” about sizeable crowds returning to the Aviva.

“Hopefully over the coming days Johnny Sexton gets the opportunity to play his 100th cap at the Aviva against Japan and I’m sure the fans will come out in their thousands to support and celebrate what Johnny has achieved.”

The key to Sexton’s longevity?

“His love for the game, determination to keep improving, his drive is second to none. I can’t say enough about the bloke. He’s a once-in-a-generation type of player and these players don’t tend to know what makes them tick that much.

“They just love being in it, they love trying to improve, they love driving the team to get better, they love performing on the big stage. He’s all of those things thrown into one.”

Apart from indicating that Sexton will win his 100th Irish cap against Japan, Farrell was non-committal about whether the selection for that first game will mirror the team to face the All Blacks, although that seems likely. Nor could he indicate whether Robbie Henshaw might be fit for the All Blacks game.

Farrell and co have seemingly opted for what they see as the potentially higher ceiling of Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne as back-up to Sexton rather than the form of others, notably Jack Carty.

“I have spoken to Jack many times and he is playing really well. His game has improved and he has embraced the challenge of captaincy. I think that has helped him and the way Connacht are playing, especially in attack.

“His game management has always been his strength and he is playing well but this is an opportunity for us to find out about people as well in this window.

“This is the first time that this group has been together since the Six Nations. Some of the guys, like Joey and Harry, were involved in the summer. This is a different feel. The big boys are back and there’s quite a few of them. The intensity that this delivers day in and day out is something that we need to find whether people can flourish in or not.

“You have to give people a chance. Selection isn’t always just about form. One guy plays well one week and maybe doesn’t play well the next. You have to use selection as a chance for people to grow as well within the environment.”

Simon Zebo was not among the 50 players in the pre-season, mini-camp but made the cut for this 38-man squad.

“He hadn’t even touched a ball under pressure in the summer so obviously he needed to get back up and running again,” explained the Irish head coach.

“The couple of games that he’s played for Munster, we’ve seen some touches of class and we all know that at international level, it always pays to have a play with Simon’s ability who can play in a couple of different positions.”

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