Saturday, 7 May 2016

Is Andy Farrell Really the Future

"Audentes Fortuna Adiuvat"

The Irish Rugby Football Union were not very lucky in signing their new defensive coach. He just happened to be available. Or available at least once the RBS Six Nations is finished in Spring and any contractual obligations to England run their course. Given the failure of England at their home rugby world cup it is no surprise that the appointment of Andy Farrell has stirred debate with some negative views expressed in response to the IRFU’s news release. By any standard the England four-man management team failed to exact the best from their protégés despite being allocated every resource for a number of years. No expense was denied them in terms of facilities either.

For those supporting the choice the strongest claims surround Farrell’s masterminding of the Lions victory against Australia in 2013 as he was the preferred choice by Warren Gatland. Despite the close links with Shaun Edwards in Wales who had been the option in 2010 for South Africa tour. Maybe that is a valid point. 

Yet reviewing those three tests that case may stand valid for second test in Melbourne which was the closest game of the three. The Australians though scored the only try of the game when Sooper Dooper Adam Ashley-Cooper crashed over – and Leigh Halfpenny then missed a last minute kick to secure the series. As the final test in Sydney was an uncharacteristic error strewn performance by Deans XV that allowed the Lions score early and maintain the momentum to win by a record margin by the full time whistle. So the real value of defensive plan in that game would be was hard to value at the time as the Wallabies brought George Smith back from retirement in the back row and he played most of the game concussed.

The three test series were very physical and a game plan that Kiwi Robbie Deans was happy to support to maintain the Wallabies winning record against the Tourists. But a style that two years later has been binned as the incoming Wallaby coach Michael Cheika has moved from that rugby league style of contact and recycling the ball through endless phases. In fact, all the Southern Hemisphere teams were on the same page in that regard, light of foot and quick in the off load. Almost avoiding contact was the unwritten rule for most. A return to union’s origins almost and never better displayed than by Japan under their former Randwick coach Eddie Jones against South Africa. The latter still toiling that dour and physical style that would be so familiar to Farrell.

Clearly in the Northern Hemisphere Warren Gatland, Stuart Lancaster and Philip Saint Andre were happy with that game plan. The French only throwing down the shackles against New Zealand when it really didn’t matter anymore. But for Ireland the signing shows that Joe Schmidt will stick to his narrow game and the defensive systems will remain a key component in the Six Nations. Not ready yet to embrace the learnings of the rugby world cup or the new style game played by those in his homeland. But then again Schmidt has been living in the Northern Hemisphere for twenty years and his exposure to the newer principles down under are reduced to tours and Sky Sports. So what used to be the new when he arrived at Leinster from Clermont Ferrand may now be dated too.

In that sense the Farrell appointment makes sense.

But as former RTE Sport pundit George Hook explained, the rugby league ideas that have infiltrated he union game in recent years have now lost their tarnish and been exposed to their limitations. The innovation that a Shaun Edwards brought when he arrived at WASPS was over a decade ago and now seems dated. As are those others who switched as Les Kiss’s last game for Ireland was not his finest moment either given Argentina scored five tries in the eighty minutes. Albeit the argument for the defence will say Ireland were a depleted force on that day. And at Ulster Kiss is keeping them in touch in the Champions Cup. 

Unfortunately, those details are lost to the history books and only the score is recorded and that was Ireland 20 to Argentina’s 43.

No doubt Farrell was also affordable, another issue that is vital in the decision making as IRFU finances face an uncertain future with the new European championship and a failure to make the semi-finals in the world cup. Also the demand for Farrell’s services in this hemisphere would have been limited and so the IRFU were probably the only serious gig in town. Which also reflects their lack of real ambition. However, with a tour to South Africa in June the Farrell appointment could be pure genius as on the fast ground Ireland’s defence will be vital for these tests.

Regardless the bigger test maybe working with Schmidt who tends towards total control and a style that may not have pervaded the England set up where Lancaster might have been more democratic. If the stories about the selection of Sam Burgess are to be believed, then Farrell had a stronger role than in that than the small print of his contract would suggest. Which even the dogs in the street could see was forcing a round peg into a square hole leaving that the newcomer from league lost when playing at the highest level. 

So with Ireland there might be a bigger test for Farrell in the short term rather than worrying too much about what the Springboks can throw at him.

But for Irish rugby is Farrell really the future? Innovative enough?

Dunno about that…. even the Romans used to say "Fortune Favours the Brave"


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