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What Farrell must do to put stamp on Ireland set-up

 

New regime: Andy Farrell has plenty to ponder as he takes up the Ireland reins
New regime: Andy Farrell has plenty to ponder as he takes up the Ireland reins

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The night before Andy Farrell was confirmed as Ireland's next head coach, Joe Schmidt was crowned World Rugby's Coach of the Year in Monaco.

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Much of the focus centred around the New Zealander's contribution to Leinster and Irish rugby and, when the succession plan was assessed, the analysis largely centred around the big shoes the Englishman would have to fill.

Eleven months later, the task looks an even tougher one for very different reasons.

It is unclear as to how the coaching transition will actually manifest itself but, in essence, the changeover happened at full-time in Tokyo when the two men sat side by side, watching in horror as New Zealand punished Ireland's errors and ran in seven tries to bring another World Cup campaign to an end at the quarter-final stage.

Even as Schmidt held his press conference, his time in charge was at an end, and Farrell was assessing what he'd just witnessed through the prism of how he now must pick up the pieces.

He has major decisions to make, from the captaincy and the way he treats a damaged leadership group to the strategy for regenerating a stale team and a game plan that has been left behind by the major nations in the last 12 months.

In 14 weeks, Ireland open their Six Nations campaign at home to Scotland in what will be Farrell's first as a main man.

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The make-up of his squad and the identity of his captain will tell us much about the direction he wants to take things. Then, we'll see what approach he's taking.

Between now and then, he has a number of big calls to consider.

The senior men

Steve Hansen's comments on experience should be nailed to the wall at the union HQ.

Essentially, the All Blacks coach said that Ireland's experience of losing quarter-finals meant it was no use to them when it came to the pressurised environment of facing the world's best team with history on the line.

Schmidt put his faith in his senior players, sticking with them despite losses in form.

Sure, Devin Toner and Jack McGrath might question the notion that the Kiwi was loyal, but as New Zealand were ripping up the script and backing form, Ireland were going back to the same players.

Only Rory Best will retire after this tournament, so Farrell must decide what to do with the players who don't look like making it all the way to France in 2023. All of the players are under contract with the IRFU until the end of next season at the very least.

Johnny Sexton will be 38 at the next tournament, Rob Kearney will be 37 and his runs until the end of the season. Conor Murray is under contract until 2022 and will be 34 in France, Cian Healy will be 36, Sean Cronin 37, Peter O'Mahony 34 and Keith Earls 35.

During a difficult 2015-16, Schmidt was forced to experiment in the 2016 Six Nations and again in South Africa that summer. By the time he got to the 2017 summer tour, he had an idea of what was coming through.

Farrell is unlikely to ditch everyone on the back of what's happened in Japan. The IRFU will demand Six Nations results and he needs to get a bit of goodwill.

But there is room for big moves, with Joey Carbery deserving of a run as a starter with Sexton in a redefined role, while Jordan Larmour must be a certain starter.

Form should be valued over experience whenever possible. Ireland don't have the player depth England and New Zealand do, but there were players in the World Cup squad playing better than some of the starters - even some younger men.

Meanwhile, he must build a new core of leaders around a new captain in James Ryan, with Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson the senior corps in four years' time.

New blood

Project players Jamison Gibson-Park and Rhys Marshall will be available to Farrell in the next Six Nations, while he'll have to wait until November to pick James Lowe and Connacht captain Jarrad Butler.

They'll add to his options, while he'll also look to infuse the squad with more new blood, with Leinster hooker Ronan Kelleher a player whose early-season form will catch his eye.

He's relying on players making a mark at provincial level, but he'll have 2023 in mind when he's assessing performance in the Guinness PRO14 and Champions Cup, and will watch the likes of Max Deegan, Scott Penny and Caelan Doris closely as he looks to reinvent a tired-looking back-row.

Munster's Craig Casey and Fineen Wycherley could make a mark, while Ulster flyer Aaron Sexton is off with the Sevens for the season but could be another. Michael Lowry may be small, but he has game-changing abilities.

An attacking revolution

The biggest proving ground for Farrell will centre on the way his team attack.

The reality of Ireland's athletic profile must be acknowledged - they're not a team who can rely on going through teams, so they must develop a strategy for going around them.

Mike Catt is the man Farrell has appointed to assist him with this department, although it is likely the head coach will have a heavy influence on the style of play with the ball as well as without it. He has watched and analysed Ireland more than most, so he can see where they're going wrong.

Other teams have figured out a way to beat his rush defence, so he has a job on his hands there, but finding ways to get Ireland more effective in possession and more dangerous must surely be the priority.

They can't just copy what's happened in Japan, they need to innovate or face being left behind once again.

A mental overhaul

Ireland are scarred by their history of failure at World Cups.

Schmidt created an environment that was able to produce historic first wins, but when it came to the crunch, the baggage of past failures appeared.

Performance coach Enda McNulty was in Japan and has been working with players throughout Schmidt's time, but on the pitch the players didn't look like they believed their own confident words.

Ireland's camp is wound tight, with the head coach's high-intensity manner filtering down through the player group.

All of those video review sessions inhibited the players' decision-making, and when it came to the crunch moments, they were hesitant.

Perhaps a more relaxed approach might just suit a group of players who have heard the same voice for a long time.

The All Blacks used to have a stigma at World Cups, but they honed in on their mental approach and got over the line.

The players' belief will be at a low base, but they'll look on Farrell as a fresh start.

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