Andy Farrell hopes he has found what he’s looking for. By inviting the U2 frontman Bono to speak to his players a few days before Ireland face England, and by bringing the former captain Paul O’Connell into camp for the week, Farrell’s message to his squad is clear. Identity matters. “Irishness” is something to be proud of and to be used to their advantage.
If that sounds familiar it is because Eddie Jones, his opposite number on Sunday, has been trying to do the same thing with England since taking over in 2016. Indeed, he writes about it at length in his recently published autobiography and claims that, out of all the countries he was worked with, instilling an identity in his England team has been the hardest.
His predecessor, Stuart Lancaster, tried with limited success too and it cannot be coincidence that Farrell has worked under both at Saracens and England respectively. But he is undaunted by their difficulties.
“[The idea] is to reiterate what it really means to be a proud Irishman,” Farrell said. “I suppose it means a little bit different to each individual but just understanding the connection as a whole, not just to the people in Ireland, not just those at Twickenham but that live in the UK as well, what it means to families going over there.”
It is a topic about which Farrell speaks eloquently and, listening to his players, they were evidently in thrall to Bono, who talked to the squad for an hour and 40 minutes. Suffice it to say that “Irishness” in this instance goes beyond Guinness-glugging or “smiling eyes” or whatever lazy stereotype rolled out in the past.
“There were a lot of angles,” said Cian Healy. “[Bono] was a good rambler now. There’s a lot of angles he went on but he did touch on it and how the Irish are perceived abroad and how they’re liked.”
CJ Stander, one of the form players of the Six Nations so far, was born in South Africa but qualified for Ireland on residency. He is an example of a “project player” Ireland have been criticised for in the past but the idea of Irishness is not lost on the Munster forward. “It is not something you can put into words, or something you can define, it is not something you tap into, it is something that is in you,” he said. “I’m not saying it is in me but I have seen it over the years coming out of players and people. Bono said it is something that comes out when the going gets tough.”
In Farrell’s eyes, the blueprint for how “Irishness” manifests itself on the pitch is Ireland’s 43-13 win against England in 2007. It was the first match between the two sides to played at Croke Park, the home of the GAA, and while Farrell ended up on the losing side it is a contest to which he frequently harks back. “I definitely felt a difference that day,” he said.
Wins at Twickenham have been harder to come by for Ireland over the years but in 2018 they were resounding winners to clinch the third grand slam. Later that year Ireland beat New Zealand in Dublin, rounding off their annus mirabilis under Joe Schmidt before stagnating in the buildup to the World Cup. Indeed, they were on the receiving end of two thumpings by England in 2019 but Farrell has been taking steps to bring about a return to their 2018 form as they seek to claim the triple crown.
“[As a squad] we talk about 2018 a lot. We train like that a bit more now,” Farrell said. “The Scotland game was really physical and that did us the world of good going into the Welsh game. We know how England want to play. They play hard on the gainline, try to win quick ball, winning collisions. We want to turn up and express ourselves in that way as well.”
Ireland players, having grown weary of the tight leash on which Schimdt kept them, have been only too happy to extol the virtues of the relaxed atmosphere under Farrell. Of course, had Jones had his way, Farrell would be working for him now, again writing in his book that in 2018 he sought to appoint him as defence coach after Paul Gustard’s departure. It was Jones’s call to get rid of Farrell when taking over England – one of the hardest decisions he has had to make – but at the time he felt the family soap opera with Owen Farrell at that stage not captain would be detrimental.
According to Farrell senior, though, there are no hard feelings. “He asked the question [about working for him], I had a good job anyway. No more than that,” Farrell said. “My honest opinion, I don’t think it was my job [after the 2015 World Cup] anyway, I worked for Stuart and I would have done exactly the same if I was Eddie. He’s been through a hell of a lot. He’s had some awesome experiences and I’ve always enjoyed going for a coffee with him. He loves talking about rugby and so do I.”
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