True to Andy Farrell’s minimum target before each of the last three editions of the Six Nations, Ireland were in the title hunt until the final weekend, even if twice finishing third before last season’s runners-up finish and Triple Crown.
At yesterday’s Six Nations launch, Farrell spoke of maintaining progression, improving as a team while seeking to win every game Ireland play. But being in the mix on the final day would be all the more meaningful an ambition, given Ireland’s game at home to England on March 18th is this year’s Six Nations final.
“That’s what you want. The competition is exactly that, it’s a competition. It’s different pressures from the autumn etc. That’s why we all love it because of the ups and downs,” said Farrell.
“During the competition, everyone would love an expectation to go on and win a Grand Slam but the reality is we know how difficult that is, especially with the way northern hemisphere rugby is being played at the minute.”
For all the world number-one ranking and series win in New Zealand, a Six Nations title is a box to tick, but nor is it a question of prioritizing that over the World Cup or vice versa just yet.
“No, we will be honest enough with ourselves to see where we are at. I know that we could have all the ambition in the world to finish number one, but in reality, we could still improve as a team and finish number two etc.
“But the lads are desperate to be successful and win. That’s the next thing that’s in front of us and how people perform and how we deal with that as a group will grow us to be able to pick the right squad and we know the type of characters, whether they are growing or not with the rest of the season, and then we roll into pre-season, don’t we?
“We finally get to have the players for a full summer and hopefully make some big improvements before the World Cup starts.”
The internal reviews have, understandably, identified that Ireland’s attack dipped last November when narrowly scraping past South Africa and Australia, compared to the series in New Zealand, even if there’s also an acknowledgment that the Six Nations is different gravy again.
“We lost our way in certain games but the good thing about it is we found a way to get back and win, so getting back in sync a little bit with our attack, showing some good ambition and playing the game that’s in front of us is always going to be key.
“But 100 per cent, everyone knows the Six Nations is a war of attrition up front, the set-piece battle, the breakdown is heavily tested – you saw the Toulouse v Munster game yesterday. That’s the sort of thing that’s coming our way.”
There would, he said, “be some honest feedback” when the squad reassembles on Tuesday.
“We know where we need to go and where we’re concentrating ourselves before the Wales game. But having said that, one area that we have been working really hard on is the mental side of our game and keeping our composure nice and calm, especially when things aren’t going our way.
“There were tough battles in the autumn, especially the South Africa and Australia games but we did find a way, which is a skill in itself.”
Helpfully, with Johnny Sexton due to resume full training next week, the squad is in relatively good health. Tadhg Furlong is also back training, as is James Lowe after a visit to New Zealand for family reasons, although Farrell didn’t sound too optimistic about Robbie Henshaw being fit for the round two game against reigning Grand Slam champions France.
Unhelpfully too, with something amiss off the pitch, Bundee Aki hasn’t played in any of Connacht’s last three games either, although an eight-week suspension didn’t prevent Farrell and co picking the centre on the bench for the autumnal finale against Australia – when he scored the match-winning try.
Deftly sidestepping the issue when asked, Farrell said: “Ideally, you’d want everyone to be playing on top of their form and playing as many games as they can, four or five in a row, but we know that’s never a case, in any type of squad, there’s always some type of injury, we’re always 20 per cent down somewhere along the line.
“We had the same questions before Autumn, plenty of guys who hadn’t played any rugby. So it’s about getting across our work in the next two weeks, going hard, make sure we assess where people are at to make the right decisions as far as selection is concerned.”
Understandably too, Farrell was not of a mind to divulge what improvements he is seeking from Joey Carbery after leaving him out of the squad.
“I personally would like to keep the conversation that I had with him private because it’s between me and him. Obviously he knows what he needs to work on in his game. I give feedback to everyone else in the squad as well and that will stay the same.
“I thought he went well yesterday,” he added, of Carbery’s performance against Toulouse. “I know there will be a good reaction from him and that’s what we are ultimately trying to achieve. We are after people competing against each other.
“I asked Ross [Byrne] to do the same over the last couple of years, and he’s been doing that. He deserves a chance to show that he can transfer that onto the international stage.
“Joey will go away and work unbelievably hard to get back in the room and I’ve no doubt, he’ll give us even more [selection] headaches further down the track.”