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Andy Farrell undaunted by high expectations or taxing schedule

Ireland coach happy to embrace the juggling of games against the All Blacks and Springboks inside 24 hours.

The dust had barely settled on Ireland’s historic comeback series win over the All Blacks when that hoary old chestnut as to whether Ireland had “peaked” too soon before a World Cup reared its head.

At the end of 2018, Ireland were chosen as World Rugby’s team of the year, even though New Zealand finished it ranked number one with Ireland two. Bizarrely, and uncomfortably, somehow Ireland overtook the All Blacks during the 2019 World Cup and, well, we all know what happened next.

Ireland ended last summer as the world’s number one-ranked side, and bring that ranking into their Nations Series opener against the world champions South Africa next Saturday week.

But Andy Farrell not only believes this Irish team isn’t near its peak, he is happy for them to bear their hard-earned mantle.

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“I keep on saying, we’re nowhere near where we want to be. We focus on the process and what we’re trying to achieve and [do] not waver from that.

“Things should look after themselves, but at the same time, I don’t mind being number one. We should embrace it a little bit, using it as a weapon for us, you know? There’s no saying whether we will be number one after the first game or the second game, but let’s embrace it, go after it, use it. I don’t want to be number two. What are we waiting for? Let’s go after it full throttle and see where we’re at.”

The players have bought into this too.

“We’ve talked about it this morning so we’ll see how it transpires. But I’ve been asked this a lot from the minute I got back from New Zealand. What are we scared of? We want to be at our best. That’s why I said before, we wanted New Zealand to be in a position where they never lose twice in a row, they have their injured players back, they never lose a home series.

“That’s why I hope South Africa and ourselves are at our best. The result will take care of itself but at last we’ll keep finding out about ourselves. That’s what we want to do. That’s how we keep progressing, not necessarily just on the scoreboard.”

Ireland have been buoyed by what appears a healthier medical update than seemed possible recently. In particular, Farrell was grateful to have Joey Carbery training fully this week despite the shoulder injury he sustained in Munster’s defeat by Leinster.

Ciaran Frawley “will be managed across the week” after injuring his shoulder in the same game, while Tadhg Beirne (adductor), Jamison Gibson-Park (hamstring), Hugo Keenan (abdomen), Jacob Stockdale (ankle), Calvin Nash (dead leg) will be reintegrated to training this week.

Furthermore, Tadhg Furlong (ankle) and Peter O’Mahony (neck) will train later this week, while Craig Casey (groin) and Josh van der Flier (ankle) will continue their rehab.

The eight-strong Ulster contingent returned from South Africa on Monday night following the postponement of their match against the Sharks, after illness swept through their squad, and will be managed over the coming days.

Suffice to say, when the dozen players named in the ‘A’ panel for the game against the All Blacks XV at the RDS on Friday week link up with the 37-man squad on Sunday night, Farrell and co will have a multitude of selection issues to consider.

It remains to be seen whether Gibson-Park and Keenan will be plunged into a clash with the Springboks in their first outing since the third Test in July, although it wouldn’t entirely surprise if they were.

As things stand, only the injured James Lowe and suspended Bundee Aki will be missing from that starting XV in Wellington, along with Keith Earls from the bench. This is offset by the form and fitness of Garry Ringrose, injured in the second Test, and the return of Robert Baloucoune and Jacob Stockdale, absent from the summer tour.

In any event, with only Jordan Larmour, Earls and Niall Scannell missing from the two Maori games, the core of that side is likely to remain in situ for the A game, while being supplemented by some of those who took part in the Emerging Ireland tour.

“I think it will be a big step up from that,” Farrell said in reference to the Maori games, “and then seeing who can earn the right to get selected for a Test match is the continuity of that piece.

“Because, make no mistake about it, that will be one of the biggest games that those type of players who will take the field will have ever played so we’re excited to see them under that type of pressure.”

For Farrell and co, it’s not quite on the scale of Michael Cheika potentially coaching Lebanon in the Rugby League World Cup against Australia and two days later coaching Argentina against England at Twickenham, but, even so, coaching two sides for games against an All Blacks XV and the Springboks within 24 hours is quite a demanding balancing act.

Again, bring it on.

“It’s what I craved to happen because I want to keep finding out about ourselves, who can deal with the pressure and who can’t, and I’m talking about management as much as the player group.

“I like things to be a little bit different. I think over the professional era there are too many of us who have got stuck in our ways of ‘this is how we always do it, we play week to week and our training week is always like this, this and this’.

“When you tweak things and people begin to panic that’s rubbish in my eyes, there’s no excuse. There’s always something happens within a World Cup, always something that’s going to try to rock the boat and these type of excuses are exactly that, excuses.

“I want us to be able to deal with things, the here and now and just push on in this manner. Trying to come up with these type of things will allow us to become better in that regard.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times