Andy Farrell was a big game player and these are the weeks he lives for as a coach. With their array of threats, New Zealand are the ultimate test of his team’s defensive mettle and after overseeing the defensive session on a sunny morning in north Kildare his enthusiasm for the task at hand is clear for all to see.
Only three northern hemisphere teams have beaten New Zealand this decade and Farrell has been a coach with all of them.
In 2012, he was England’s defence coach under Stuart Lancaster when they slayed the beast at Twickenham, four years later in Chicago he was alongside Joe Schmidt when Ireland ended their 111-year wait to beat the men in black and then last year he was a major part of Warren Gatland’s team as the Lions levelled the series in Wellington.
Over the course of that three-game series, the tourists’ line-speed discommoded their hosts who went up the guts in game one, but struggled to produce their normal champagne rugby as they were forced to settle for a draw.
“Whatever he brings from their defence system that’s what he brings,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster said of Farrell yesterday.
“I’m not in their camp, I can’t comment on that but clearly it’s a big part of their game. How Ireland go about defending, they defend with a lot of passion and their mindset is to put everything into it.
“We’ve seen it for a number of years. I think that’s probably always been an Irish mindset to be fair, but he seems to have brought a lot more accuracy to it.
“How he goes about it, I don’t know. But clearly there’s a lot of belief in what he does.”
The Irish players rave about Farrell’s input. Johnny Sexton’s respect is hard-earned and this week he put the defence coach’s role in context.
“Andy has been massive for Irish rugby,” he said. “He was brilliant for English rugby as well. He has come in and had a massive impact in this squad. Hopefully, he will continue to have over the next number of years.
“To have him in your side, as such, coming into big weeks like this is massive. It gives the guys a lot of confidence. The fact that he’s coached teams that have beaten them, he knows what it is going to take. He will explain to us what it is going to take. Having him on our side is brilliant.”
With Schmidt set to announce a decision on his future at the end of the month, Farrell is the obvious next in line.
England reportedly came calling earlier this year as Eddie Jones searched for a new defence coach, but he turned them down. He remains top of the list to succeed the Australian, but he has settled into life in South Dublin and looks happy with his lot.
Fully aware of IRFU chief executive Philip Browne’s highly complimentary comments in yesterday’s newspapers as he began his press duties, Farrell neatly sidestepped the issue of his potential ascension to the throne.
“You won’t expect me to answer that today in the week that we’ve got,” he said, not unreasonably.
“What I would say on that is that I have a fantastic job, I really enjoy myself working under Joe, learning. Joe will make his decision in time, I’ll keep enjoying myself and hopefully keep getting better.”
There is, he says, no secret to preparing a team to take on the world champions.
“I’ve lost against them a lot more than I’ve won as well,” he said.
“There is no secret. You hear the lads talking about it all week, the lads who’ve played against them. They’re a good side, aren’t they?
“They’re going to have their time in the sun and what they’re masters at is making sure when things go wrong for them, which they do because they’re a team like anyone else, their confidence levels, their ability to stick to the plan and stay on point is better than anyone.
“We have to take our learnings from that and make sure when things go against us or the run of play goes against it, we get back on point as soon as we possibly can on both sides of the ball.”
It is, he concedes, the ultimate test for a defence coach.
“It is. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
“The reality of what we’re coming up against this weekend is that they are the best attack in world rugby.
“That’s probably one of the main reasons why they are on top of the tree.
“Their ability to stay calm and stick to the processes and not panic, play good territory, hit people on the break, play at speed.
“All the guys are comfortable on the ball.
“They’re all good attacking players. Even their front-rowers have got a good feel for time and space.
“They’ve been playing their system for quite some time now.
“They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. They’re just very good at what they do.”
As an exercise, preparing the Lions to take on the All Blacks three times in as many weeks in a highly pressurised environment was an informative experience for the former dual-code international. “The first game, they hit us through the middle, through the heart really,” he reflected.
“It actually hurt. They were more physical than us in the first Test. They played a very tight game, tried to take away our line-speed.
“The second game, we reacted to that and we got a response. There is a lesson learned there. The response has to be straight from the start.”
That is the challenge for an Irish team containing a collection of players who have beaten New Zealand before, some of them twice.
The perception is that the old fear factor is a thing of the past.
“I think fear drives players like that because they want to perform against the best, they know it is a chance that comes around once a year if that,” Farrell said.
“It is two years since we last played them so it is the fear of making sure we put the best foot forward and make a good account of themselves, both individually and collectively, so I think the fear drives us a little bit.”
If they are to make history with their first win over the All Blacks on home soil on Saturday, Ireland will need to show no fear in attack but be on red-alert in defence.
With Farrell in their corner, they’ve got a good shot.
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