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Andy Farrell’s ‘impressive’ evolution and why a series win would be huge for Ireland

Andy Farrell is hoping to lead Ireland to an historic series win over New Zealand

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It seems as though raising the bar is something Ireland is becoming increasingly good at.

Since Andy Farrell stepped into the hot seat at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland have finished no lower than third in the Six Nations and this year, they collected the Triple Crown.

Due to Covid-19, their encounters against southern hemisphere opposition have been limited but their 29-20 victory over New Zealand in November 2021 was a clear sign that Ireland, and Farrell, were setting their standards high.

That win in Dublin only increased the anticipation for this current Test series against the All Blacks and as they prepare for their winner-takes-all clash in Wellington this weekend, the journey under Ireland’s head coach is set for its latest chapter.

“I have been lucky enough to meet him [Farrell] a few times and he has a real aura around him,” Irish rugby columnist Bernard Jackman tells TRU. “He’s got charisma. Players would die for him and he’s managed to create a very happy squad.

“He has beaten the All Blacks six times as a coach which is pretty phenomenal and twice as a head coach. If he can beat them and win a series out there, it is a huge step forward for Irish rugby.”

Of course, the next stage in Ireland’s progression with Farrell is to try and seal a first-ever series victory over New Zealand, but already on this tour, the former defense coach has highlighted his growing credentials as a ‘No.1’.

After losing their opening match against the Maori All Blacks, Ireland’s tour threatened to disintegrate following their 42-19 defeat in the first Test at Eden Park, but Farrell’s willingness to tweak his original plan saw his side produce a superb performance in Dunedin to level the series.

“It was a real sign of his evolution as a coach,” adds former Ireland international Jackman. “He came in as a defense coach, but if you think about it now, he’s had some experience in rugby union whether that was at Saracens, the [British and Irish] Lions with Warren [Gatland]England with Stuart [Lancaster]Ireland with Joe [Schmidt] and now he’s a head coach, he is responsible for all aspects of the game and for bringing it all together.

“I think from a tactical point of view, that second Test was probably his best ever day and also from a physiological point of view, to get that Irish team to believe they could beat the All Blacks was incredibly impressive.

“Obviously the first two games, if you include the Maori game and the first Test, it hadn’t gone well for us. The All Blacks had some Covid issues going into that first Test and maybe we felt that it was the best chance to beat them but how Ireland fixed the issues they had in the first Test, how they controlled the ball and did the basics incredibly well, that’s the big thing for me.”

The focal point of the ‘Farrell era’ will come at next year’s World Cup as Ireland look to progress past the quarter-final stages for the first time in their history.

The phrase “Ireland have peaked too soon” cropped up after an encouraging 2018 where they won the Six Nations Grand Slam under Schmidt and followed it up with a first-ever home win over the All Blacks later that year.

However, Ireland couldn’t live up to the standards they had set themselves as they crashed out in the last eight of the 2019 World Cup for the third successive tournament, but how Farrell has molded and created a positive environment is telling according to Jackman.

“When Farrell got the job after Joe Schmidt, the first year was all about creating an identity and a culture,” says Jackman. “I was probably critical as a pundit because I felt that it was important, but also, we didn’t really have any tactical evolution. He basically said the priority was to get these players enjoying playing for Ireland again.

“Look, it wasn’t like they didn’t like playing for Ireland but camp became quite monotonous. Camp became very tense because that was Joe Schmidt’s leadership style so Farrell wanted to fix the whole identity culture. He has done it as he said he was going to do it and it seems to be a very happy squad at the moment.

“The criticism in Ireland was we were playing a big boy’s game without the big boys and Farrell, in fairness, has created a game plan which is based on fast ball, ball movement, offloads, good lines of running, good support play, good breakdown play. The hard part is actually implementing it and he’s managed that which is incredible.”

That understanding across the group has led Ireland to a series decider against the current favorites for next year’s World Cup.

Farrell has made one enforced change for the third Test with Bundee Aki replacing the injured Garry Ringrose, whilst Johnny Sexton will lead the side in Wellington.

Jackman believes the Ireland skipper is currently playing “better now than ever before” and at the age of 37, the mercurial fly-half is still striving to achieve more.

His head coach said earlier in the week that Ireland are “in control as much as the All Blacks” ahead of this final clash and in years gone by, that hasn’t been the case.

Ireland will be aware they have ‘poked the bear’ that is New Zealand and they will be wary of an All Blacks backlash, but Jackman hopes his nation can focus on their own game.

“Control is also staying within the law and in both Tests, our discipline was pretty good,” adds Jackman. “I think I [Farrell] is just trying to create a little bit of a reminder. The All Blacks traditionally, against Ireland anyway, if they lose the next game, you usually get a physical onslaught and he is probably just sending that message that they need to stay in control and we absolutely must do that.

“I have to say, this isn’t a vintage All Blacks team, but we have never gone there and won and they are still the All Blacks! I think it would be a massive shot in the arm for us a year out from the World Cup, but we also know that the top four teams in the world [France, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand] are on one side of the draw so we are going to need to get those little physiological boosts because it is going to be incredibly difficult out in France.”

After a compelling couple of battles with the All Blacks, it all comes down to this for Ireland. Win, and as Jackman says, it will breed more confidence heading into the final lap of this World Cup cycle but even if they lose in Wellington, the bigger picture should be about their progress on this tour.

With Farrell at the heart of it all, they seemingly have all the ingredients to kick on into 2023.

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