Andy Farrell's identity shone through in Ireland's performance against New Zealand. His ability to manage different players, different situations and set up in different ways allowed his squad to excel.
Andy Farrell didn't have his own identity when he was announced as Joe Schmidt's heir.
Farrell was England's defence coach under Stuart Lancaster from 2011 to 2015. He was Schmidt's defence coach with Ireland from 2016 to 2019. He was given the job when Schmidt announced his departure because he was the next man up on Schmidt's staff. At least, that's what it seemed like from the outside looking in.
Ireland were at the peak of the Schmidt era then. Everyone wanted to keep it going. So keeping Farrell as his next-in-line made sense.
By the time Farrell actually took over, nobody wanted anything to do with Joe Schmidt rugby anymore. It failed at the World Cup. It failed before the World Cup. And it was boring to watch. The prospect of Farrell continuing it inspired nobody. During his first Six Nations in charge, the only real differences were the absences of Rob Kearney and Rory Best.
For a while, it looked like the same stubbornness and rigid approach would linger. But Saturday's victory over the All Blacks not only suggested Ireland have reached a new level, it revealed Andy Farrell's identity as a head coach.
Ireland built their success against New Zealand on many pillars. Schmidt deserves a lot of credit for the foundation, but the way in which Farrell has adjusted the side and managed different players in his squad is critical. Keith Wood explained this week how Paul O'Connell has impacted the Ireland pack.
Farrell brought O'Connell in after he had already assembled his staff. Ireland's playing style wasn't changing so Farrell rejigged his staff in January of this year. Simon Easterby moved to full-time defence coach, Mike Catt remained as attack coach and O'Connell took over as forwards coach with John Fogarty as scrum coach.
That gave the team clarity and gave the coaches clarity. Easterby was no longer splitting his role between forwards and defence coach.
O'Connell had established relationships with some of the senior players. He was an inspirational choice for the younger players. Farrell has always carried a reputation as a players coach. When Simon Zebo was in France, he was never shy about highlighting his difficult relationship with Schmidt.
Yet he always spoke highly of Farrell, even before he became the team's head coach.
When Zebo returned to Ireland he wasn't immediately included in the squad. He also didn't feature against Japan or New Zealand. Farrell hasn't played favourites with his team selection. Take Ireland's starting wingers over the last two weeks, both Andrew Conway and James Lowe have had individual challenges over the last 24 months. Both have been in and out of the Ireland starting 15.
Farrell's handling of Lowe was particularly important.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) November 14, 2021
He spoke about that after the Japan game.
“James had a little bit of a wake-up call. He went away and understood how he needed to prepare for international rugby. His preparation is through the roof in comparison to what it was before. He’s learned the hard way. There’s a few things that he needs to get better from today as well but his attitude is in the right place.
“He finds a way into the game. He’s not a tidy player but neither do we want our players to be tidy players. He finds a way into the game, he’s in great nick, he’s lost a bit of weight and is fit.”
He's not a tidy player but neither do we want our players to be tidy players. In those two paragraphs, you can see how Farrell is a players coach. He guided Lowe to become a quality starter at a time when everyone in Irish media and the stands just wanted him gone. Farrell showed Lowe what he needed to do to get better while still embracing him for who he is.
Ireland are doing that tactically now too, with Lowe spending lots of time in midfield rather than standing on the left wing waiting for the ball to find him.
Wingers and back rows are what Ireland are full of right now. The competition in both spots is fierce. Farrell didn't necessarily need Lowe to rebound after his disastrous start in a green jersey, but he saw the value in nurturing him. Similarly, Josh van der Flier has taken significant strides forward in the same time by showing much greater power. Van der Flier used to be washed out by bigger opponents, but his physicality matched the New Zealanders on Saturday.
Conway didn't need development. He lost his place in the Ireland team for this year's Six Nations in part because of injury, Farrell remembered his quality even while he was absent.
Now the duo give Ireland the perfect balance of wingers on either side of the field.
Ireland had similar decisions to make with their front row. Cian Healy is still a very good rugby player. Leinster made the decision to move Andrew Porter back to loosehead, reverting the 34-year-old Healy to the bench. But that's a tougher decision to make at international level.
It's not like Healy was playing poorly. And while Porter could play loosehead at club level, it's another decision altogether to pick him ahead of Healy against international props. Furthermore, Ireland would start a brand new loosehead with a hooker in Ronan Kelleher who started less than 30 games for Leinster.
We can revise history and say this was an easy decision now that the group dominated the All Blacks. But Healy is a legend of Irish rugby and a popular player. Sitting him wasn't straightforward. Schmidt wouldn't have done it.
Caelan Doris started Ireland's first Six Nations game after the World Cup. He only lasted a couple of minutes.
Farrell received criticism from all four quarters for not bringing more young players into his starting team. Ultimately, he was showing greater patience than those who were criticising him. He fast-tracked Doris, but he gradually developed Kelleher and Hugo Keenan.
Keenan made his debut on the wing against Italy in the 2020 Six Nations. He gradually moved from try-scoring winger to lynchpin fullback. But remember the real heir to Rob Kearney was Jordan Larmour.
Less than two years ago nobody was more exciting in Irish rugby than Larmour. Now he's not even in Ireland gameday squads. Moving past Larmour was made easier by his inconsistencies but again it's another player that required a big call from Farrell.
Farrell developed Keenan and Kelleher gradually. He threw Doris in straight away. Different approaches for different players.
Farrell's success with Ireland's young crop buys him credit with the likes of Harry Byrne, Craig Casey and Ben Healy. There's reason to believe he knows what he's doing now with the future of Ireland's most important positions.
Enjoyed this from Andy Farrell on Saturday night: pic.twitter.com/HusnKVWjIc
— Murray Kinsella (@Murray_Kinsella) November 15, 2021
Ireland's playing style against the All Blacks was ambitious, expansive and confident in its execution. That's the identiy of the Ireland team right now. Your identity as a team comes from your leadership. Nothing phased Ireland on Saturday, even when they were somehow down 10-5 at halftime, because nothing phases their head coach.
Team of Us. Everyone In.
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