After Ireland’s extremely disappointing defeat at the hands of the All Blacks, it is now time to move on and look forward to a new era of Irish rugby. The manner of Schmidt’s departure was saddening and not the fairy-tale ending many had dreamt of, however that’s the nature of sport. It’s now Andy Farrell’s time to take up his first head coach role, with Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations against Scotland in less than fourteen weeks from now.
Farrell doesn’t have an easy task ahead of him, in what will be somewhat unfamiliar grounds. His coaching CV is quite impressive, having worked alongside not only Joe Schmidt, but also the likes of Warren Gatland, Stuart Lancaster and even Eddie Jones at Saracens. However, his lack of experience in a head coach role will undoubtedly bring both excitement and difficulties for the Englishman.
The first item on his agenda will likely be who he’ll choose to captain the side. Current vice-captains Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony are likely candidates, however there is no doubt James Ryan is in with a shout. Although just twenty-three years old, the Leinster lock has plenty of experience in leadership roles, having captained in school rugby and having led the Irish U20 team to a runners up medal in the Junior World Cup in 2016 and a famous victory against New Zealand during the pool stage. It is unlikely that Sexton will feature in the 2023 World Cup and O’Mahony isn’t a definite either given he will be thirty-four by the time the competition comes around. Ryan was arguably Ireland’s best performer in what has been a difficult year, and it wouldn’t be ridiculous for Farrell to throw him into the deep end immediately. One must recall Brian O’Driscoll was just twenty-four when he took over the captaincy from Keith Wood, and he proved to be one of Ireland’s most successful captains. Many would argue that it wouldn’t be correct protocol to place such a burden on Ryan at such a young age, however we must remember that this man made his international debut before he even made his Leinster senior debut; he can handle the pressure. Farrell may take the conservative route in his decision however, maybe giving one of Sexton or O’Mahony the captaincy for the beginning of this world cup cycle, with the intention of eventually letting Ryan take over. Maybe Ryan could get some experience captaining Leinster first, before he takes reign at Ireland.
Farrell must also look at what Ireland need to change for the 2020 tournament. One criticism of Joe Schmidt’s game-plan was its eventual predictability. Farrell will of course be focussing on Ireland’s defence, with former England international, Mike Catt, joining his backroom team to focus on Ireland’s attack. Schmidt was renowned for developing Ireland’s attack to a whole new level with his major attention to detail, but unfortunately for his last year in charge, heavy line speed from opposing teams diminished the threat. All coaches have the next world cup on the back of their minds, and this will no doubt be the case for the Irish coaching staff. I would expect the likes of Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway to break their way into the starting 15 over the next few years and unfortunately Keith Earls and Rob Kearney might have to make way.
It is likely that Farrell will approach his first Six Nations solely with the intention to be crowned champions. Four years is a long time and so there will be a chance in the future to develop his squad for the next world cup. If Ireland carry on performing like they did during 2019, the pressure will of course come piling on Farrell. Ireland have the ability to be the best team in the world on their day, but the great teams have something they unfortunately have failed to show too often; consistency.
Jack McSharry – Sport Writer