On a weekend of seemingly infinite possibilities, it’s worth stopping for a moment and taking in the surroundings. The only thing we know for sure is that it won’t always be like this. It might not even be like this come teatime. Maybe England will rattle into Lansdowne and knife every bodhrán in a five-mile radius. Maybe all the Grand Slam talk will turn to ashes in our mouths. Could happen. Probably won’t. But could.
So for here and for now, there’s no harm in bathing in what Irish rugby has become. You can probably rhyme all the stats off the top of your head. Unbeaten for such and such, number one in the world since so-and-so. A wondrous feat of planning, co-ordination and husbandry, especially given it’s still only the fourth-most played field sport on our tiny, rainy rock.
To see England arrive here as such a tortured and tortured thing is to remember that nothing in sport is straightforward. English rugby has more players, more money, more supporters, more history of success. They’ll get their ducks in a row eventually and they’ll go back to winning Grand Slams — the respective score between the two nations stands at 13-3 in that regard. But just now, they’re a model of dysfunction.
And God bless ’em for it, eh? Somehow, some way, English rugby has reached a point where its best coaches are applying their talents to the Irish system. Munster, Leinster, the Ireland team. All led by coaches the English system has discarded. It’s hard to imagine they’ll keep stepping on rakes forever so best enjoy it while it lasts.
Anyone who has watched Andy Farrell in action over the past weeks and months can only offer up hallelujahs. The planets have aligned for Ireland here in a way that couldn’t have seemed possible after he got the bum’s rush from England in the wake of the 2015 World Cup, along with Stuart Lancaster. Farrell has turned out to be the right man in the right place with the right stuff, precisely when Ireland needed him to be.
These things are rarely linear and A plus B doesn’t always equal C. But it feels pretty obvious by now that the Ireland squad were badly in need of a palate cleanser after the final year of Joe Schmidt’s time. Genius and all as Schmidt was, some of them will openly say now that they used to pull into the car park in Carton House at the start of a week feeling like they’d have to cram for an exam before they ever laced up a boot .
The Farrell regime is self-evidently different. The standards are still high but he wants the players to explore their own path to reach them. Everything the Ireland players tell you now about life under him is flavored by the authority he gives them. He wants them to be themselves, not a version of themselves that they project to impress him.
The Ireland coach has a natural authority about him, perfectly approachable but devoid of faff. There he sits, shaven of head, bearded jaw, looking like a bouncer at a Rammstein gig. He should be scary but he isn’t. There’s something about his bearing — open, willing, decent — that puts people at ease while at the same time leaving nobody in any doubt who the big kahuna is.
When he lands down in front of the media after games, he wears his IRFU suit as protocol decrees. But the top button will be open and the tie will be loose and you always get the sense that as soon as he can get back into his civvies, he will.
Farrell’s authority goes hand in hand with his empathy. He has this verbal tic whereby he’ll take a question in a press huddle and somewhere in the course of his answer, he’ll throw it back to the gaggle if he’s looking for affirmation. “They went for it, didn’t they?” was his verdict on Ireland’s third-quarter domination of the Scots last week.
It’s a slight subtle turn of the phrase and he probably doesn’t even realize he does it. But deliberate or not, it makes those around him feel involved. If he’s willing to do that with the lowly caste of the press, imagine how tuned into the frequency of his players he must be on a daily basis. And how eagerly they must take his lead.
The Ireland camp these days always make a big play of embracing adversity and leaning into the disasters that have befallen them along the way. They cheerily admitted to laughing in the dressing room at half-time last week, so absurd was the length of the injury list after just 40 minutes in Murrayfield. That attitude can only come from the top. Farrell actively wants them to want things to go wrong so they can enjoy fixing them.
Everybody is shaped by their circumstance. Andy Farrell was, famously, just a child when two monumental things happened in his life. He turned 16 in May, his first child Owen was born in September and he made his debut for Wigan in November. For most of us, just putting our shoes on the right feet is achievement enough when there’s a two-month-old in the mix. No wonder he sees chaos as an opportunity.
Whatever he has, whatever he’s conveyed to the Ireland players and staff, it’s working. England must be looking at him and wondering how they ever let him leave. If they’re not, they’re in even bigger trouble than we think.
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