“COHESION, TOGETHERNESS, PREPARATION.”
Through a combination of a Test match with quite low stakes, the sight of two under-strength teams taking their first steps into action and perhaps even the uncomfortable late-summer heat, it was a question from visiting Japanese media that shook one of the more interesting responses as Ireland’s first matchday 23 of the season was unveiled.
What is the secret of the world number three-ranked team?
Andy Farrell was just the man to deliver a succinct answer. And to his initial three bullet-points he added “grit” as chairs squeaked and laptops clapped shut at the end of his press conference.
The assistant coach took the head coach role far earlier than he would have liked, sitting at the top of Carton House’s drawing room today to read out a starting XV due to Joe Schmidt’s absence after a family bereavement in New Zealand.
The defence coach, who takes over as head coach after the World Cup, would not commit to a timeline for Schmidt’s return from compassionate leave. Saying simply that it was ‘up to Joe’ whether Farrell’s stewardship continues through Saturday.
“Well, obviously, it’s under unfortunate circumstances. I didn’t think I’d be here reading the team on a Thursday, because that’s Joe’s job.
“It’s been fine. It’s been easy enough because we’re following the plan we’ve been doing the whole time we’ve been together with Joe.
“We know what we’re doing. As assistant coaches we’re happy to assist.”
Both coach and athletes throughout Irish Rugby continually speak of how they aim to build player-led environments. And those efforts will be felt this week as the continuity of process and build-up is brought about by the team and backroom.
‘Cohesion’ was the word on the tip of Farrell’s tongue for more than just the secret to Ireland’s rise in the world rankings. It is the quality they are striving for this week as they take on Italy. On top of the six weeks still to run before the World Cup proper kicks off, a two-week gap before the next warm-up tempers any sense that momentum can be mined from this weekend’s outing. So Farrell is keen to see a squad on the same page and gelled for the more enticing tasks ahead.
“It’s a big game for a lot of people this weekend. It is a Test match, the first (match) of the season, which is unusual for the guys.
“Cohesion is the word we’ve been looking for all week. Having said all that, the plan’s there, the strategy is there, but they’ve got to play the game as it happens.
“It’s not going to be perfect. No game is perfect, especially the first one of the season. But can we stick to a plan? Can we adapt on the run? Can we see the game for what it is?
That’s all part of the process.”
Farrell addresses the team after training. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
How Jean Kleyn adapts to playing for Ireland will be one of the most scrutinised elements on Saturday. The freshly-qualified South African lock is one of four second row options included in this weekend’s squad and, with Devin Toner alongside him, the 25-year-old won’t have line-out responsibilities to distract him on debut.