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Ireland v England: Reacting to adversity is the best tool Andy Farrell has given Ireland

Scenario planning only gets you so far - attitude is crucial when things go wrong

Improvise, adapt, overcome. Good enough for Clint Eastwood, good enough for a Six Nations campaign. If this week has had a theme, indeed if the tournament as a whole has had a theme, it’s been the imperative to shake off disaster and to keep finding a way. Ireland have done that better than everyone else, so Ireland are the ones going for the Grand Slam.

The mechanics of how to achieve it are fascinating. Every team in every sport aims to be good at dealing with the unforeseen. Jim Gavin’s Dublin always worked under the truism that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Andy Farrell’s Ireland have got used to acting accordingly. Get surprised by nothing. Shit will happen. Be ready.

“Andy has put us in different scenarios lots and lots of times over the last three years,” says Peter O’Mahony. “You go back to all of those experiences – New Zealand last year, Six Nations, navigating things like losing a first test, guys coming in, guys going out, Covid, everything. That’s just part of rugby.

“You roll with the punches and you’ve got to get on with it. I think we’ve built a squad now that is capable of anything. No matter what happens, guys just step in and we keep going.”


Rolling with the punches is one thing. Last Sunday in Edinburgh was a case of having to roll with the punches, the roundhouse kicks, the Samurai swords and whatever other assorted nasties the fates had in store for them. Cian Healy hooking scrums, Josh van der Flier throwing into lineouts, O’Mahony seeing his try disallowed because the Scots used the wrong ball. Ho-hum. You dance between the raindrops and you keep moving forward.

“We’ve been building over the last two years with a lot of challenges thrown at us,” says Robbie Henshaw. “It’s about how the squad prepares and it’s not just the match-day 23 but the wider group as well. So a lot of the work goes on behind the scenes.

“Josh van der Flier practising his throws back in the Leinster gym – things like that which you don’t see. And you’re always prepared for the what ifs. Even if nobody prepares for two hookers going down, that’s probably a one in a hundred shot.

“So it’s those little bits and pieces that go on behind closed doors that the public don’t see. I don’t know what the ratio is but about one in probably 100 times it happens.”

The trick is to be there, dressed and ready, when it does. Henshaw won’t be putting into the scrum or anything like that anytime soon but life gets wild and you can’t rule too much out. Not definitively, anyway.

“I might have to practice drop goals or something!” he laughs. “No, for our position we have to be ready to go on to the back of the scrum. We practice that now and again just in case we go down a man and our scrum is under pressure. That’s a kind of a ‘what if?’ for our position usually.”

The last time he had to do so was against Wales in Cardiff during the Covid-19 Six Nations. It didn’t work out for Ireland that day – an early O’Mahony red card was the killer blow in a 21-16 defeat. When put to Henshaw that Ireland would find a way to come through the same scenario today, he doesn’t quite get there. But he doesn’t rule it out either.

“I’m not sure. I suppose we were down to 14 men in that game and it turned into a game we could have won,” he says.

“So I suppose it shows a bit of adversity in terms of now, where we’ve three big injuries in the first half [against Scotland] and lads have to be called upon. The lads coming off the bench did unbelievably as well so it was a great team performance and it shows where we’re going.

“It’s about being calm under pressure. We know they’ll have their purple patches, their good bits in the games, and being able to deal with what they throw at us and being calm, I suppose.

“It’s being able to bounce back from anything – a mistake, a positive moment, a negative moment. It’s being able to bring ourselves back to ground and bounce into the next thing.”

So much of this comes, as it must, from the head coach. It’s almost a caricature now, this idea that Farrell craves adversity for his team, to better prepare them for the next thing going wrong. But the way this campaign has played out, he couldn’t have handed them a more useful tool.

“The big thing with him is he wants people to be themselves and to express themselves,” says O’Mahony.

“By doing so, you have guys who aren’t afraid to put their hands up and ask questions and make points. And as a result, guys are clearer, guys are on the same page. It gives a huge amount of confidence, just him being around the place.”

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times