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Ireland's Farrell Era: Something old, something new and a philosophy from the Blues

Gavin Cummiskey looks at what has changed and what remains the same ahead of the Six Nations

Andy Dunne is hardly a soothsayer. An adventurous outhalf during his nomadic career – Leinster, Harlequins, Bath, Leinster again and Connacht – he's since carved a niche in the podcast market. Listening back to his pre-World Cup warnings Dunne can be framed as rugby's version of Morgan Kelly, the economics professor who predicted the property crash.

The 40-year-old Dunne continually stated boom would lead to bust if Joe Schmidt’s Ireland refused to change their “restrictive” attacking strategy.

"It seems all the international coaches, or certainly those in the Six Nations, went away and analysed what we did in 2018 and worked out pretty quickly that if you match us physically we don't have much else in the locker," Dunne told Off the Ball following total collapse in Cardiff last March.

The alarms bells began sounding this weekend last year when English men were allowed block Irish chasers, launched to either regain possession off Conor Murray's box kicks or force the opposition to punt for touch. Such territorial gains allowed the Irish lineout to initiate Schmidt's first-phase trickery; the genesis of two unforgettable tries – CJ Stander at Twickenham and Jacob Stockdale against the All Blacks – in 2018.


Foil these mesmerising strike plays and the pack would plough upwards of 20 phases until a scoring opportunity appeared – 43 carries, with monumental levels of concentration and flawless technique, were required before Johnny Sexton’s drop goal sailed over in Paris.

“I’d nearly absolve all the players of blame,” Dunne continued. “I think the coaching staff are far too oppressive, and far too dictatorial about the style of play. Schmidt seems to want to control 12 to 15 phases from the stand at all times, and he needs to reverse out of that fast. There are too much rucks, and I’ve said this for a long period of time.”

Similar to Matt Williams in these pages, Dunne pleaded for Schmidt to "take the shackles off" despite a "labour-intensive" approach delivering so much success, and so many injuries, especially at the 2015 World Cup.

“It’s hard to watch great players humiliated walking off the field with their heads down, bruised and battered. If you run into a brick wall 140 times, see how creative and accurate you’re going to be the next week?”

At some point between March and June last year the Ireland management, of whom Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby and Richie Murphy remain key figures, made the decision to work harder on a strategy that their opponents knew they would employ in Japan.

This happened despite several voices leaning towards elements of Stuart Lancaster’s Leinster attack.

“If he persists with this plan it ain’t going to work in the World Cup,” Dunne warned.

The bubble burst on a stiflingly humid night in Shizuoka.

Did the World Cup prompt structural changes in Irish rugby?

No. David Nucifora, the IRFU performance director, subsequently confirmed the decision not to change their offensive approach has been filed away in the regrets ledger alongside "Lens 1999", "Bordeaux 2007" and "Wellington 2011".

But, Nucifora stressed, the system remains unbroken. The overriding message from the World Cup review was that cracks exposed in 2019 did not cause permanent damage.

However, the national team’s ecosystem has been significantly altered in a very short period of time.

Familiar coaches in new roles?

Andy Farrell will remain a "tracksuit" head coach but he has re-jigged responsibilities. Simon Easterby is overseeing defence, the Wigan powerhouse's previous domain, but the 65-times capped blindside also retains responsibility for the lineout. John Fogarty's primary brief is the scrum – replacing Greg Feek – with the former Leinster hooker also providing technical support in areas like the breakdown.

Mike Catt arrives from Conor O'Shea's disbanded Italian set-up to replace Schmidt as attack coach.

New (blue-tinted) strategy?

Catt is Farrell’s man but with only 10 days preparation in Abbotstown and Portugal, the 48-year-old must be feeling the heat already.

Ireland could simply overpower Scotland and wait to unfurl their new attack against Wales but Lancaster – who Catt and Farrell worked under with England (2011-15) – believes the Leinster philosophy will be adopted.

“Knowing Andy and Mike, and having worked with them, it will be pretty close to what we do,” Lancaster recently told the BBC. “I’m not saying it will be the same, there will be differences in attack and defence, but philosophically, knowing Mike and Andy as I do, there will be similarities.”

If Murray's relentless box kicking and a multi-phase battering ram approach are still visible against the Scots it is safe to assume Catt needs more time. The forecast 43km/h winds will influence Johnny Sexton, who will probably cherry pick his favourite moves from the Schmidt and Lancaster playbooks.

Who are the formal leaders?

Since Paul O’Connell retired in 2015 Sexton has been the uncrowned king of Irish rugby. He openly sought the captaincy of province and country. Yes he’s still prone to apoplectic turns, but listening to the 34-year-old at press conferences in recent years it’s apparent that his interaction with referees does not need to become a disadvantage. An excellent communicator, devoid of corporate speak, the officials know him well. They respect him. They have to.

Sexton's captaincy confirms that any long-term planning for the 2023 World Cup has been shelved until after the 2022 Six Nations. Rassie Erasmus's Springboks, Steve Hansen's All Blacks and Eddie Jones's England all proved that the real preparation only begins 18 months out.

Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson have been added to the leadership group with Farrell stating that James Ryan "was in the last [group] anyway but he is certainly in this one."

No new manager, why?

Paul Dean, outhalf when Ireland captured the 1985 Triple Crown, appears to be the last person to fill what became a largely ceremonial role. Dean stepped aside after the World Cup and, for now, is not being replaced.

Previous managers, Paul McNaughton and Mick Kearney, brought a business savvy to the unpaid position, while also providing subtle links from coaches to players as well as a light touch with the media. Kearney, in particular, has been missed since 2016.

The newly formed leadership group – Peter O'Mahony, Garry Ringrose, Furlong, Ryan, Henderson and Sexton – will decide if a middle man is required.

Considering Farrell is adamant about hands-on coaching, a respected figure might lighten his load. Eddie Jones puts enormous stock in Richard Hill's work behind the scenes with English clubs and players.

France have former captain Rafa Ibanez to dampen any flames. Maybe Nucifora feels he can fill this gap. A known unknown.

There’s a new media approach?

Farrell grasps the value of avoiding internal stress created by secrecy and misinformation. The team will be released every Tuesday, unlike the previous regime when a needless and time consuming game of cat and mouse occurred between coach and media, with players regularly chastised for leaking information – mainly by telling friends and family who, bursting with pride, spread the news – before the Thursday announcement. Farrell: “I’ve always thought, ‘what’s the point?’ The players always know anyway, nice and early, because we’ve got to do preparation, so let’s get it out there and get on with it.” Ouch.

Does experience still trump form?

Not so fast John Cooney. If nine tries in several stunning displays for Ulster is not enough to dislodge Conor Murray then perhaps nothing will be.

“Competitiveness is our friend” says Farrell and Cooney’s second-half arrival is promised. Maybe his presence on the bench is enough to drive Murray standards back to their 2017 highs (for the Lions in New Zealand). Also, Cooney didn’t train fully in Portugal as he was recovering from a head knock.

Besides the retired Rory Best and Peter O'Mahony being replaced by Caelan Doris, this is the same Ireland XV that Scotland faced in Yokohama.

The reserve props Dave Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter – both playing outstanding rugby for over a year now – continue to wait behind Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong, while Ultan Dillane and Will Addison cannot break into the matchday squad as Farrell reinvests in Devin Toner stocks and Jordan Larmour. Addison, once again, has been injured.

New caps from reliable sources?

"He's made for this," said Sexton of Doris. A standout performer, when only 15, as Nick Timoney led Blackrock to the 2014 senior cup, this specialist number eight has been climbing over quality backrowers ever since. Provincial teammates Max Deegan and Jack Conan ensure Doris can never suffer a dip in form and expect to keep the green jersey. Yet again at Leinster, something has got to give.

Herring gets a first Six Nations start by dint of Kelleher's recent hand injury but Irish rugby hasn't produced a hooker with the 22-year-old's explosiveness, skills and size since Keith Wood. Oh yeah, he went to St Michael's.

Change in video analyst?

Mervyn Murphy, having efficiently served under Eddie O'Sullivan, Declan Kidney and Schmidt at five World Cups, has moved on, but Vinny Hammond – an underage team-mate of Sexton – is a well established operator with experience from the 2017 Lions tour.

What about the new training pitch?

The Sport Ireland Campus in Abbotstown is a hive for Olympic track athletes, boxers and gymnasts. The IRFU invested €6 million in their high-performance centre but the squad will continue to sleep 20km away at Carton House.

“If you get a chance go have a look, it’s incredible,” Sexton advised.

“The indoor pitch, the gym, the meeting rooms, everything is top quality. It’s good to stay in Carton. We do a little bit there and then we come out here early in the morning and spend our days here and then back to Carton so we have the best of both worlds at the moment.”