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How Andy Farrell has revitalised Ireland by sticking to his beliefs

Ruaidhri O'Connor



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Strong start: Andy Farrell has been cultivating a more relaxed atmosphere, which has helped Ireland earn two wins from two in the Six Nations

Strong start: Andy Farrell has been cultivating a more relaxed atmosphere, which has helped Ireland earn two wins from two in the Six Nations

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Strong start: Andy Farrell has been cultivating a more relaxed atmosphere, which has helped Ireland earn two wins from two in the Six Nations

Andy Farrell has made a strong start to his career as Ireland head coach by staying true to his beliefs.

It would have been easy to bow to public opinion and cast aside a host of Ireland's World Cup flops, select James Ryan as a dynamic new captain and encourage his team to throw offloads willy-nilly in his first couple of matches.

After all, he was perceived as a continuity candidate who was by Joe Schmidt's side and was under pressure to prove his difference.

Off the pitch, he has sought to lighten the mood around the camp, making small but significant changes to a set-up that was in place for six years in the hope that a more relaxed atmosphere would help lighten the load on an overburdened player group.

In the media, he has been ultra-positive in his messaging as he looks to rebuild the team's belief.

But, most importantly, he has kept faith in a group of players whose form fell off a cliff in the months that followed their win over New Zealand in 2018.

Outside the camp, fans and pundits called for change, but his message to his experienced players was one of affirmation.

Having worked with them since 2016, he reckoned that a change of voice, a freshness around the camp and a couple of tactical tweaks could get them back to their best. It was a risky move, but so far it has paid off.

He is working off a solid base.

Although 2019 went wrong, Schmidt built his team into a consistently competitive outfit during the first five years of his time in charge and he remains one of the best coaches in the world despite what happened in Japan.

Still, there was a need for change after the World Cup. Farrell may be a familiar figure, but he seems determined to take the best of what the New Zealander brought and add his own style to the set-up.

The level of emotion in the coaching box during Ireland's stuttering opening win over Scotland showed Farrell's different style, but it perhaps also revealed the level of pressure he felt going into that game.

The two wins in his first two games offer him the breathing space he needs to get on with the job.

As Johnny Sexton said before the tournament, redemption for the World Cup is not on offer this spring but the team has to move on and winning is the only way of doing that.

When they gather in Cork tomorrow for a two-day training camp, their ears will no longer be burning for wrong reasons.

With Caelan Doris fit again, Farrell may consider changing up his back-row but otherwise the majority of the selection decisions are already made.

Conor Murray has responded to his faith by playing his best rugby since he got injured in 2018, Sexton is revelling in the captaincy and Rob­bie Henshaw is loving life in the No.13 jersey.

The tight-five are in good form, CJ Stander is in Player of the Tournament territory, and, even if he loses out to Doris, Peter O'Mahony can reflect on two of his stronger contributions to the team for some time having been left out for the opening match.

When it comes to moving the game plan on, Farrell can point to a back-three who are operating with the freedom to do more than just chase kicks.

In Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, they have two of the best attackers in the tournament and Jacob Stockdale has the capacity to explode into life if he can get more involved in the game.

Winning breeds confidence and, while they looked inhibited throughout the 2019 campaign, there is a free­dom to their attacking play.

For example, Keith Earls came on at outside centre last Saturday and threw a high-risk, high-reward pass under huge pressure. It came off and led to Conway's try, but it was the type of play a player only makes when he feels a coach's backing.

The Monday morning video review, for so long a source of Schmidt's strength, became a burden on the players who appeared to second-guess their actions because of how they'd be perceived by the coach.

Farrell still reviews the plays, but it appears to be a less fraught affair and that has fed into the freedom with which the players are playing.

There is a confluence of small decisions that feed into that less claustrophobic atmosphere.

Even yesterday, the IRFU released the list of 23 players who will train in Cork and confirmed the 13 who are being released to their provinces. That never used to happen.

Did it matter? Probably not, but it was a symptom of an uptight regime that, while it delivered superb results over the course of five seasons, ultimately suffocated the players..

Of course, results shape everything. If Ireland had lost to Scotland and Wales, then decisions like moving team announcements to Tuesdays would be scrutinised intensely, all team selection would have been hauled over remorselessly.

Having spent a lifetime in sport, the Englishman knows how these things can fall.

He's had some luck along the way with Stuart Hogg and Hadleigh Parkes suffering white-line fever and Tomos Williams dropping the ball.

Those won't go his way every time but his decision to resist wholesale personnel changes has worked because his environmental changes have restored the players' confidence.

The minimum requirement for this Six Nations was three home wins and he's two-thirds of the way there.

Twickenham represents something of a free-hit, even if coach and captain would reject that assessment when there's a Triple Crown to be won.

However that goes, they'll still be in the hunt come the final weekend in Paris. By then, we'll know a lot more about where they're at, but the early signs are that the new coach's approach has revitalised the players he stayed loyal to and we know what they can achieve when they are at their best.

They're not there yet, but they've made a good start.

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