Rugby works in cycles. You rise, you peak, and then you decline. Then it is followed by a rebuild and the cycle continues again. The greatest peak at a Rugby World Cup. Something Farrell’s Ireland are striving to emulate.
On Saturday, Ireland arguably put together the greatest performance an Irish side has produced against the All Blacks. However, is this only the start of the journey to the 2023 World Cup? Or is history going to repeat itself?
So far Ireland in 2021 have won seven out of nine games. This includes seven wins in a row with the two losses coming against Wales and France, losing by five and two points respectively.
Farrell has made Ireland hard to beat. Although he had an easy summer tour, the last two tests have pumped new faith into Irish fans’ hearts. A squad-defining moment.
An emphatic win over Japan followed by a convincing display over the All Blacks has accelerated this team’s rise. Their current form is on a steady rise with the style of play slowly adapting neatly alongside it. It is exciting rugby. Something Irish fans have been crying out for.
However, Johnny Sexton has made it clear that this is only the start.
“It’s important that we continue to improve. If this is our peak then it’s no good to anybody.” Ireland’s captain said.
Wise words from a wise man.
The Farrell era began with choosing Schmitt’s tried and trusted which performed outstandingly well for Ireland. Yet, he has transitioned to drip-feeding some vital players who weren’t around in 2019.
Hugo Keenan is the first name on the team sheet at full-back. Jack Conan is getting better and better since the Lions Tour. What a meteoric rise he has had in 2021! Caelan Doris is only 23 and put in a man-of-the-match performance against the All Blacks. Ronan Kelleher is another young player who has emerged and taken his game to the next level. In 2019, however, the majority had barely played international rugby.
Even more, he has now a wealth of experience on the bench, especially in the likes of Peter O’Mahoney who proved his worth against the All Blacks. He loves making game-defining moments, hence why you bring him on with 15 minutes to go. Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Cian Healy have nearly 300 caps between them. There was no doubt that these players still have a role at this level.
Farrell is redefining the role of the ‘finisher.’ Using the youth to stretch defenses with the experience offering solidity to close out a game. Historically it was the other way round.
All Blacks 2015
The perfect case study to building a perfect squad. Experience believe it or not does in fact win a Rugby World Cup. As the key men for the All Blacks in 2015 happened to be the ones with over 100 caps.
Richie McCaw- 34 years old
Dan Carter- 33 years old
Ma’a Nonu- 33 years old
Conrad Smith- 33 years old
Jerome Kaino- 32 years old
Maybe age is only a number? When the 2023 World Cup comes round Sexton will be 38, Keith Earls and Cian Healy will both be 36, with Connor Murray and Peter O’Mahony the youngest at 34.
Is this why Farrell is changing their roles as they are just that bit older? If Farrell continued to start them the decline Irish rugby was experiencing could well have continued. Prolonging their career for the next World Cup is huge. Caps win cups. Farrell’s Ireland have plenty of those.
Joe Schmitt took five years to beat the All Blacks and Farrell has done it in half the time. Schmitt’s team did this on the back of a Six Nations Grand Slam and a winning tour in Australia. It felt like the win over the All Blacks was the final box-ticking exercise.
In the next two years, Farrell has it still all to do, and Saturday’s win is only the first big box ticked. Another two solid Six Nation’s won’t be good enough. The team must now challenge. In terms of peaking, Farrell’s Ireland must be realistic. As harsh as it sounds, the All Blacks aren’t what they used to be. This is not the top of the mountain for Ireland.
One New Zealander in the Aviva on Saturday cried out, “do it for the Webb Ellis trophy.” Harsh but fair. This is the beginning of the rise for Andy Farrell with the peak hopefully, and potentially, again against the All Blacks in a quarter-final in 2023.
Farrell needs to continue to evolve his team giving the likes of Joey Carbery the summer tour to start three tests down in New Zealand. James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park also need to prove they can perform at this level without the emotional New Zealand exile baggage.
Consistency in performance away from home is the next step. It is different to play the game of your life against New Zealand in the Aviva, but it is another thing to do it in Eden Park.
And as we come to the end, this has been a comprehensive article without mentioning Johnny Sexton’s performance. Maybe that is the final sign?
The future is finally exciting again for Farrell’s Ireland.
The best is yet to come.
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