Farrell’s finely tuned Ireland machine put down marker for World Cup | Luke McLaughlin
Cohesion became a buzzword recently after a certain opposition coach used it while talking up Ireland. For all that Scotland exploded out of the traps on Saturday, it was the inner workings of Ireland’s system that proved more durable. Ultimately, a third straight bonus-point win could not prevent France from claiming the title.
“There’s so much more left in us,” said the Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, looking forward to next year’s World Cup. “We’re going to have be a lot better over the next year and a half.”
The notion that Ireland fail to peak at World Cups has become both a cliche and a constant fear for their supporters. Rewind to 2006, and Irish chests were puffed out after autumn victories against Australia and South Africa. The following year, when the World Cup in France rolled around, a team studded with players in the class of Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara failed to progress from the pool.
Ireland are again admirably well-resourced on the field, and again faced with a difficult group centred on Paris. Stade de France meetings with the champions, South Africa, and Scotland await. Will Ireland be on an upward trajectory when they kick off against Spain in Bordeaux next September?
This summer’s three-Test tour of New Zealand will help to develop a vibrant style that accounted for the All Blacks last November. “It’s massive,” said the head coach, Andy Farrell, of the summer tour. “It’s the perfect opportunity that the group need … Going to New Zealand, there’s no pressure like it, so it’s a perfect opportunity to find out more about ourselves.”
Farrell’s side are increasingly finely tuned: backs and forwards alike comfortable offloading, an enviable collective ability to generate quick ruck ball, with intelligent running lines across the field. They are also lethal when driving off attacking lineouts, evidenced by Cian Healy’s first-half try.
Ireland finished strongly but it was a somewhat disjointed tournament.
After dismantling Wales in Dublin, the unsurpassed brilliance of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, along with French pack’s crushing power, proved too much in Paris. Ireland recovered impressively having trailed 22-7, eventually losing by six. The round-three victory against 13-man Italy was useful learning in one sense: collectively Ireland failed to deal with a radical departure from the expected script.
Farrell may suspect there is work to be done on the team’s ability to adapt, especially considering they went on to labour against another depleted opponent at Twickenham. Despite Charlie Ewels’ early red card, the Irish scrum suffered at the hands of a fired-up England. The first-choice front-rows Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher are missing, however, so perhaps that can be seen as an off day rather than a chronic problem.
The full-back Hugo Keenan and centre Garry Ringrose are two members of Ireland’s back division who are beginning to excel at international level. Ringrose’s reading of the game, in particular, is significant and Keenan’s heroic try-saving tackle on Stuart Hogg was an accurate reflection of his ability.
Sexton, meanwhile, will be 38 by next September. His celebration of the late bonus point-clinching try illustrated his enduring hunger. The Leinster fly-half says he wants to avoid going out “with a whimper” and a potential World Cup quarter-final against France or New Zealand will give him every opportunity.
Asked if this is the strongest Ireland squad he has been involved with, he said: “We’ve got great potential, haven’t we? That’s what we have at the moment. We’ve got to make it reality, we’ve got to keep building over the next 18 months.
“We’ve taken a slightly different approach, we’ve started talking about it already, that this is the journey. It’s a different approach to the previous management that I’ve worked under, and I think it’s the right way to do it.”
For Scotland, after the euphoria of the opening win over England at Murrayfield, their considerable promise again remains unfulfilled. They have all the ingredients, and Rory Darge is the latest eye-catching product of their back-row talent factory.
Hogg’s decision to ignore his teammates before being shoved into touch by Keenan is not the sort of mistake that he, or his team, can afford when they meet Ireland in Paris next October.