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It is fair to say it hasn’t been a bad year for Irish rugby.
A Grand Slam, capped off by a crushing victory at Twickenham – a mean feat for any side – topped a tremendous season.
A series victory down in Australia, territory long-considered insurmountable by the men from the Emerald Isle.
An autumn (admittedly against less ferocious opposition than in years gone by) that nonetheless brought four wins from four, with the jewel in the crown being a fully-deserved and not unexpected victory over the world champion All Blacks.
That’s one hell of a scoresheet, no matter how you look at it.
It is only fair to look at that victory over New Zealand as the ultimate barometer of where Ireland currently stand in the world game.
I do not say the following sentence lightly but here goes – with that victory, I too was converted to the message that Steve Hansen gave (with what intention I do not know) after Ireland’s 16-9 win that Ireland had taken the mantle as the best team in the world.
I’ll give you a minute for that to sink in.
The reason that I have come to regard Ireland as the best team in the world – and I use the word ‘team’ instead of ‘side’ or any such equivalent deliberately, which will come up later – is twofold.
Firstly comes the impression that I took away from Ireland’s victory in the Aviva Stadium in late November – that Ireland could turn up on any given Sunday and put in a performance of equivalent quality so as to turn over the long-standing benchmark for international rugby.
Many have said that it was a truly wonderful performance from Ireland but I don’t buy that.
What I saw from Ireland on that day is about what I would have expected from them – superior game management, remarkable defensive intensity, impeccable discipline and the hearts of lions.
The sight of Peter O’Mahony racing back to cover a kick that seemed a mile beyond him was the perfect encapsulation of what Irish rugby now stands for.
The second reason I now regard Ireland as the best team in the world is that the quality they possess goes so far beyond the starting XV that takes to the field.
I have talked previously about the strength in depth that Wales are starting to cultivate but this process has been in the works in Ireland for years and it is showing now.
The side that took the field against the USA a week after the victory over New Zealand showed 14 changes and they still managed to put 57 points past incredibly competitive opponents. That shows you not only that Ireland have a plethora of talent in their ranks, but that the lessons that Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff have taught the national team have trickled all the way down.
The team have become an all-encompassing mentality that even New Zealand would now regard with a jealous eye.
This brings me to the crux of this Irish success – the coaching team. Joe Schmidt has not only solidified his reputation, he has taken it into another stratosphere from where it was when he took the job.
The Kiwi, with a permanent sparkle in his eye, has stripped back Irish rugby and built it anew from the ground up and in the process laid the foundations for a powerhouse rugby nation that could stand for many years to come.
The fate of those foundations, after the announcement of Schmidt’s impending departure from the Irish setup after the forthcoming World Cup, now rests in the hands of Schmidt’s loyal deputy and his chief enforcer, Andy Farrell.
There has been a general tendency for my money to ignore Farrell’s significance to what Ireland have achieved this year behind the (totally deserving) praise being heaped on Schmidt.
However, it is my firm belief that Andy Farrell is the secret weapon of this Irish juggernaut.
Let us examine recent history for a moment. Farrell has beaten New Zealand three times now, each time with a different side. Each time, the defence of the side he has coached has been the defining factor in the game.
When New Zealand came to Dublin, not only did they leave the field with no tries to their name but they didn’t even look at any point in the game as though they would trouble the scorers.
Before that game, you would have to go back to 2017 to see when New Zealand failed to register a try in a game. That was the third Test against the Lions, who had beaten them the week before to level the series and were coached in defence by…Andy Farrell.
These types of trends are not coincidences. Farrell has cracked the code to building a defence to contain any side in the world.
It is built on two surprisingly basic pillars – the first being extraordinary intensity in terms of line speed, tackle success and just the level of commitment his players show to the plan, and the second being faultless discipline in terms of their offside lines, their communication and spacing and their work at the breakdown.
What Farrell has got that no other team does, however, is that he has a defensive gameplan that can beat any team in the world – because there is no one set gameplan.
Those two pillars of intensity and discipline are universal in any successful defence but because Farrell is assured of those qualities from his players, having drilled it into them and not stopped until they do it in their sleep, he is able to tweak the specifics of his plan to combat the particular opposition.
There can be no arguing that this is working. We saw evidence of it against New Zealand as he used Rob Kearney expertly to expose Damian McKenzie aerially on both sides of the ball – thereby taking away a major New Zealand weapon and giving them much less clean ball to work with.
He turned the line speed up to eleven to rush the Kiwi backline and force them deeper, robbing them of momentum and space while also bringing Kearney up shallower behind the defensive line to nullify the chip-and-chase.
However, I thought the greatest trick of that night came with their tackling technique.
Farrell was not afraid to get defenders to double-team the ball carrier in the tackle – initially going low in as superior a display of chop-tackling as I have seen for some time and having a second defender coming in on the chest to nullify their famous offloading game.
Doubly, he trusted the fitness and commitment of his players enough to know that the player tackling the chest would either release as the player went to ground and rejoin the defensive line or roll away from the tackle area and be back on his feet fast enough that it made no odds.
In the rare occasion that a player did get stuck, he trusted that the discipline and communication of the whole line would allow them to navigate the next phase.
That is a plan built specifically to take on the All Blacks and beat them – it was a high-risk strategy and a lower-quality team couldn’t have pulled it off. But Farrell knows what kind of team he is working with and he trusted them to execute it. Well, didn’t they just.
The question now stands as to whether, given all that he has achieved from his assistant, Farrell is the right man to take on Schmidt’s mantle as a head coach.
I, for one, think it is the perfect opportunity for him to try his hand as a head coach. He is in a setup that he not only knows but that he has essentially built by his own hand, he knows he has the full commitment and confidence of his entire squad, all the way down to the third-stringers and he will have the confidence that he has the foundation of that defence that he has made to build from as he works on his attacking coaching.
I wish Andy Farrell all the best as Ireland head coach when the time comes – I think he has truly earned his shot and built something really special in Dublin.
Some may say his track record as an attack coach is yet to be put to paper and they would be correct – he is certainly a defence-minded man.
But you know what they say – defence wins championships.