Andy Farrell salutes group effort as Ireland bask in championship glory

Lifting silverware the best way to bounce back from Twickenham disappointment

It’s an extraordinary state of affairs really, when an Irish rugby team retaining a Guinness Six Nations title at home on a St Patrick’s weekend feels, for 40 minutes, slightly anticlimactic and then, for three minutes at the end, suddenly threatens to be something altogether worse than that.

But at least this Irish team didn’t let it slip. As exceptional sides so often do, they found a way.

This was Ireland’s lowest points tally in a Six Nations game since the round three defeat in an Aviva echo chamber three seasons ago. Since that day, Ireland have won 12 of their last 13 matches in the championship. In the end, no harm either that Scotland made the home team dig deep and the home crowd find their voice. Winning championships should never be taken for granted.

The 2009 Slam in Cardiff was enormous. The last day triumphs in Paris 2014 and Murrayfield, especially, in 2015 were unforgettable, and ditto the 2018 Slam coronation, which turned a Baltic south-west corner of London green for a day.

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But St Patrick’s Day 12 months ago was the first time in 38 years that an Irish team sealed the title on home soil. A year on, the celebrations were not, understandably, as exultant as a year previously. That was a Grand Slam coronation after all, it was England, and it was Johnny Sexton’s Six Nations farewell.

Still, keeping Zombie back until after the full-time whistle seemed apt. There was real joy and an immense sense of achievement, as well as the opportunity to celebrate in front of extended family and friends and a home crowd, the majority of whom even remained to see Peter O’Mahony lift the trophy. That, ultimately, is what it’s all about. And you know it’s a good day when O’Mahony is beaming.

“The ambition to win the thing is always right there up front. We are delighted to be able to do that,” said Andy Farrell long after the final whistle.

“Do you know what, the first game is obviously the one that people will talk about, Marseille away, everyone knew what a big start to the competition that was,” he added in reference to that statement opening night 38-17 win over France.

“I actually, probably look at the Italy game,” he said of the ensuing 36-0 win over the Azzurri when making six changes to the starting XV and bringing seven players into the match-day squad.

“I mean have a look at what’s happened since with Italy and their performances and the change in the personnel that we had and how we got the bonus-point win from that. It says a lot about the group you know.”

Garry Ringrose became the 32nd player used in this campaign against Scotland.

“It has been a group effort and it’s what we pride ourselves on as far as our preparation, as far as people being disappointed, not getting to take to the field,” said Farrell, citing the examples of the unused Nick Timoney, Tom Stewart, Jacob Stockdale.

“They have been the heart and soul of preparation and that’s what pleases me most that we’re able to get this championship over the line when it mattered for those people.”

Remember too that this was Ireland’s 13th international of the season and, on a human level, that World Cup campaign was as taxing as it was anticlimactic.

Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne, Jamison Gibson-Park, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw have remained standard-bearers, and as well as that we have seen Joe McCarthy, Calvin Nash, Ciaran Frawley and Jack Crowley emerge, with the outhalf playing all 400 minutes in this new post-Sexton era.

“Yes, and do you know what? Jack’s a realist. I’ve been hard on him, we all have, and Jack will tell you that because it’s easy to read the press isn’t it, with you guys, and get carried away. ‘I’m doing it and I am doing really well’.

“But we’ve kept his feet on the ground and Joe McCarthy as well and people like that because there has to be a realisation that that is not it, that’s not what we are chasing. We are chasing something better than that and as long as we can continue to do that we’ll continue to grow as a group,” added Farrell.

Farrell also described O’Mahony and the rest of the leadership group as “an unbelievable bunch”, adding: “Honestly if you were in camp with Pete you’d realise what it’s all about really. They take control of the feeling of the week, of how they need to grab hold of it themselves and take ownership etc. It’s phenomenal and it’s so powerful. That group is so hungry and is growing all the time.”

Nonetheless, they look like they could do with a break from Test rugby now, and the toll may prove exacting for the provinces, not least Leinster. Then, on the horizon is that two-Test series against the world champions South Africa.

“It doesn’t get any more difficult, does it, or any more exciting than that?”, ventured the Irish head coach. “All you want is an opportunity to put yourself out there against the best and South Africa are 100 per cent the best.

“So, being able to go out there and test ourselves over there – we’ve managed to win one game over there before – and to play two games will be great for our development going forward.”

Farrell admitted that “to be consistently at your best is probably impossible” and the last two games underlined this albeit they will keep striving for this ideal.,

“When class players drop out of the squad, it’s always going to take time to build back up and if you can do that winning, or learning from the experiences like at Twickenham or whatever, then that’s all well and good.

“But the reality is that there’s plenty more in us and there has to be for what’s coming for the rest of the year.”

Regrets, they’ll have a few, not least about Twickenham, but lifting the trophy was the best way of atoning. Champions alright.

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