Farrell convinced a refocused Ireland are up to the challenge
Defence coach says a number of areas have been targeted for significant improvement
Andy Farrell: “These boys are gung-ho to play a Test match and draw a series, make it level at the weekend. There’s no excuses there.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In the course of their record dozen victories in a row, and especially so during the Six Nations window, this Irish squad have shown a capacity to improve when winning – as Johnny Sexton has said, the sign of a good team.
Farrell was defence coach to a Lions team which was in the exact same position last summer and, drawing on that experience, he believes this week’s challenge should prove revealing.
“Well, we’ll see what we’re made of. I mean, this is what top-level rugby’s all about. We’ll see what the good old-fashioned Irish ticker’s about, won’t we? Because it’s the game that matters for us to stay alive.
“There’s a few lads that are a bit down on themselves, a bit frustrated. I think there’s a realisation that they deserved to win and that hurts within itself and I do get the sense that after a couple of meetings, and understanding how we need to move forward for the rest of the week, that the key is to hold them back, especially after watching training this morning.”
After losing the first Test, Warren Gatland, Farrell and the rest of the Lions coaching staff maintained that the 30-15 first Test defeat in Wellington could be overturned. With Sexton restored and pulling the strings with Farrell’s son Owen, thanks to tries in the last ten minutes by Toby Faletau and Conor Murray the Lions prevailed 24-21 in Wellington, so completing an 18-point turnaround within a week away from home.
Are there similarities from that week in terms of it all being fixable?
The fixable are similar.
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” said Farrell. “Sometimes it isn’t complicated, you know, sometimes it’s a little bit of attitude and a bit of fight. There is a little bit of a realisation if we’re totally honest that they edged a few areas that are pretty precious to us and that we’ve been good at in the past. That’s why we need to make sure that we balance the week out and make sure that we’re ready for Saturday.”
Farrell had the aerial game and the breakdown in mind, where they were eclipsed primarily by Israel Folau in the former and David Pocock in the latter, after a Grand Slam that was in large part built upon their remorselessly accurate clearing out and hence retention of possession for large tracts of games.
“Well we’re good at that aren’t we? You can talk all day long about the brilliance of certain people at the breakdown for them but we’ve prided ourselves and shown in the past that not too many people get access that way into our game.”
“A lot of it is to do not just with the breakdown guys but the ball carrier himself. He can have a better impact there, and the animation around the ball carrier which gives you one on one tackles rather than two on one tackles. But we’re normally pretty good; I’d say the best in the world at no time and space, and we were slow to react to certain things at the weekend.”
Ireland’s last win away to Australia which completed that 2-0 series win in 1979 was by 9-3. But those days are gone. Nine points ain’t going to win a Test match Down Under against the Wallabies nowadays.
In failing to convert any of nine line breaks into tries, Farrell said: “Our instinctive reaction wasn’t quick enough. You can talk about the breakdown after the (line) break, but we want to finish those tries off in the first instance. Sometimes it’s not rocket science. Sometimes you get quick ball by intent and we’ve got good enough players, on the back of good go-forward, to make it happen, and we expect that to happen this weekend.”
Results alone, or the task ahead, do not decide how this coaching ticket sets the tone of the week.
“We’re pretty good at that, you know. We’re a tight group, an honest group. We’re a tight group together and we can say it as it is, what’s good enough and what’s not at this type of level.”
“The reality is that there’s a lot of guys that’s played a lot of rugby and probably needed a rest or two last week. But there’s also some guys that haven’t played too much rugby at all and the pace and the intensity of the top one per cent Test-match rugby that we’re playing over here, we’ll be better for that in the sense that we’ve got that game under our belt now and we realise how much we need to up our game.”
Heretofore, it’s been the season that kept on giving like no other in the history of Irish rugby, but Farrell has no sense or fear that tiredness, either mental or physical, is apparent.
“No, I don’t honestly, because it’s not even in our vocabulary, it’s not. We’re here to win a Test-match series against the number three in the world, are they? It doesn’t really get any tougher than that. If you can’t get up for that, can’t get excited for that. If you can’t get excited about the week that we’ve got ahead then we’re in the wrong place.
“Nobody’s mentioned fatigue. Of course it’s been a hell of a year but these boys are gung-ho to play a Test match and draw a series, make it level at the weekend. There’s no excuses there.”
Ireland are entering new territory within new territory, seeking a first series win Down Under since 1979 and a first ever from being 1-0 down, in a country where 27 of this 32-man squad have never toured before.
Regardless of the outcome, this should be invaluable.
“Yeah, it’s huge,” said Farrell.
“There’s good similarities already to the South African tour. We find out a lot about ourselves as individuals and as a collective and that’s huge for us moving forward. I think Australia have done things pretty similar, you know, in the autumn they blooded new players and found out about how they fit into a group etc. I think they’ve got that right and this is priceless for us as well.”
And in the process we find out what good old-fashioned Irish ticker is all about.