Ireland’s new defence coach is… Andy Farrell. Farrell won’t join until after this year’s Six Nations but has a contract which will take him up until after the 2019 World Cup. Welcome aboard, Andy!
It’s an appointment that’s interesting for a handful of reasons. First of all, rather than drip-feeding the appointment out to the usual conduits in the media in advance so that they could get the broader public used to the idea, the news arrived as, well, news. It’s hard to remember the last time any bit of news arrived hot off the press. Even mundane stuff like team selections have been fed to Thornley and his chums for the last number of years almost without exception.
Another interesting element is that Andy Farrell does not appear to have been born in any of the following countries: New Zealand, Australia or South Africa. Lordy! What’s all this about? Irish rugby has long adopted the stance that the southern hemisphere is the place where the best coaches come from, and it is they who they tend to employ. There’s some history of English coaches – think Brian Ashton, which went well, right? – working in Ireland but not much. The Irish public as a rule has little respect for the English way of playing. English rugby is perceived on this isle (and beyond, to be fair) as being a samey, unimaginative sort of game, built on a forward pack which is powerful, but not Bok-powerful and sprinters on the wings but nobody who really has the imagination or skill level to give them the ball.
Andy Farrell goes even a step beyond that, completing a terrific hat-trick of associations that will immediately prove off-putting: Saracens, rugby league and the English World Cup effort. That’s the holy trinity right there. Rightly or wrongly, for who really knows, Farrell found himself being fingered with the decision to about-turn on England’s catch-and-pass gameplan and the move to revert to a more traditional bosh-and-kick strategy which backfired dismally and proved itself to be embarrassingly out of step with the approach of the better countries in the tournament. Meanwhile, any mention of the word Saracens is enough to make Irish rugby fans groan. He’s also being blamed by angels like Bruce Craig for sending Slammin’ Sam back to Souths with his tail between his legs.
None of that will matter much to Schmidt however, who will see Farrell as a hard-nosed and experienced operator. It won’t have gone unnoticed that Ireland’s defence – while generally the bedrock that has delivered two Six Nations – was passive and meek in the games against Italy and Argentina in the world cup. Farrell might trade off some of Ireland’s love of the choke tackle for more aggressive line-speed. Saracens’ famous wolf-pack defence, led with some degree of ferocity by Jacques Burger, focuses on the simple dynamic of coming up in a hard, straight line at such speed that they can suffocate teams at source. Paul Gustard has been heralded for its implementation but Farrell had the team working in a similar fashion before moving on to Team England. Farrell is also credited with the generally decent defence put up by the Lions in 2013. While the games were so terrible only the pro-Gatland elements of the UK media will remember much of the specifics, for sure they didn’t win the series based on their attack, so the defence has to have been halfway decent.
There is of course one other English coach with a league background who has found himself in the position of having to coach his son – Mike Ford. Ford was, we believe, Ireland’s first ever defence coach (certainly the first decent one if not the first actual one) – it was an appointment that went well for both Ford and Ireland. Farrell is basically Ford minus a decade in his background and understanding of the game.
The final bit of intrigue was the confirmation that Brian O’Driscoll has become a sort of Twitter oracle whose every utterance becomes news in and of itself. Part of the reporting of the news is that Brian O’Driscoll has endorsed the appointment. Other recent events on which BOD has commented include Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ian Madigan’s moves to Bordeaux and the potential elevation of Garry Ringrose to the national team. All have become news stories. Perhaps an ‘Endorsed by Brian O’Driscoll on Twitter’ badge should be handed out to all those who receive his kudos. He anticipates that under Farrell’s tutelage, Ireland would show good line-speed and kick-chase. Dull and all as that sounds, it’s the bread and butter of defending.