Gerry Thornley: Long-term planning won't be a luxury for Andy Farrell
For all the talk of building toward 2023, now more than ever rugby is a results business
Andy Farrell: faces a significant challenge in overseeing the transition of an ageing Ireland side clearly in need of new blood. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The more you think about it, the more you realise what a sizeable task Andy Farrell and his assistant coaches have in following up the Joe Schmidt era. Given the inextricable link with the provinces, reviving the spirits will be a difficulty, but that’s where the rebooting has to begin.
In the fallout from the 2015 World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina, Leinster had their worst European campaign ever, winning just one of six pool games, while Munster and Ulster also failed to reach the knock-out stages.
It remains the only time no Irish team reached the last eight of the competition since 1997-98, and the season was only redeemed by Connacht reaching the last eight of the Challenge Cup and, more significantly, achieving their historic Guinness Pro12 success.
Then again, you never know, the expedition to New Zealand in 2011 also ended anti-climactically in that quarter-final defeat by Wales, and yet that season ended in the only all-Ireland Heineken Champions Cup final when Leinster beat Ulster 42-14 at Twickenham.
Both Munster and Leinster reached the semi-finals of the Guinness Pro12, with the latter only denied a double by their 31-30 defeat by the Ospreys in the final.
As for the Six Nations, only wins over Italy and Scotland secured third place in the table. Similarly, in 2012, Ireland finished third after wins over the same duo, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much in next year’s tournament.
The Andy Farrell reign will begin with home games against Scotland and Wales, before trips to England and France either side of a home game against Italy. He has much to ponder, but rugby is not like football, and no less than other countries, Ireland can’t afford to be selective and just build purely for the World Cup by throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Of the ten thirtysomethings in this World Cup squad, only Rory Best has confirmed his retirement. True, there’s every likelihood that Johnny Sexton (34), Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin (both 33), Keith Earls, Cian Healy and John Ryan (all 31) won’t be in France 2023. Even the 30-year-olds – Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and David Kilcoyne – might be pushed to do so, along with Bundee Aki, who will then be 33.
However, they all have plenty of good rugby left in them and the Irish central contracting system, and the IRFU’s financial structures and planning, demands that Ireland put their best foot forward.
The Irish international team remains the financial life blood of the game. Money doesn’t grow on trees, although you’d like to see more investment outside of the schools’ game and into the clubs and junior games.
Leinster’s plans to create modern centres of excellence in three locations outside of Dublin can’t come soon enough, for there must be more Sean O’Briens and Tadhg Furlongs out there. Even better if the other provinces follow suit. Ulster, for example, are not pulling their weight. But, if it ever happens, much of that will have benefits beyond 2023.
Furthermore, it’s not as if a bunch of players were left behind who might have been in this World Cup campaign and hence, by extension, will readily step into this team.
St Michael’s College and a few of the other elite Leinster schools can’t remain the primary source of talent indefinitely, even if there are more fine prospects coming through that pool, such as the hooker Ronan Kelleher and the back-rowers Scott Penny and Caelan Doris.
Every team needs an infusion of freshness, and Ireland perhaps particularly so after the bulk of this squad scaled the mountain top in 2018 only to slip off it in 2019.
Ireland’s game will also have to evolve, becoming less structured and more skilful and instinctive, with more offloading and more variety to the kicking game. All the indications are that Farrell is of a mind to make this happen.
Ironically, his one-time supremo with England, Stuart Lancaster, set about doing just that on arrival at Leinster, reinventing them as the skilful, inventive, running and passing side that in truth is their identity, albeit their game has become a more balanced one in the last couple of high-achieving years.
Hence the new attack coach, Mike Catt, will be expected to make a real impact. But for all the talk of building toward 2023, signs of progress will also need to be swift. That’s modern-day life. First and foremost, like any sport, this has never been more of a results business. All it takes is a couple of mediocre Six Nations campaigns, or even one, for the pressure to seriously mount on Farrell and co.
Two last thoughts on the weekend just past.
Firstly, and not for the first time in World Cup history, one half of the draw genuinely does look stronger than the other.
Secondly, the three sides in the quarter-finals whose final pool games were cancelled, thus affording them a two-week run in to the knock-out stages, give or take, all played as if significantly refreshen by the break.
Steve Hansen may have claimed it told against his side in the last ten minutes, but it sure as hell didn’t in the first 70. England took care of business against Australia, and France really should have done so against Wales.
Furthermore, for the first time in the tournament, Japan had less of a turnaround than their opponents, and ever since the Brave Blossoms beat Ireland, the All Blacks and the Springboks could cruise through the rest of their pool games while all the time meticulously planning for quarter-finals certain in the opposition they were facing. By comparison, neither of their opponents could afford to cruise.
And how it showed.