IRELAND coach Andy Farrell is under increasing pressure to produce a performance of significance.
He has to revert back to the tried-and-trusted to save face.
Coaching at any level has its stresses. However, at the summit of any governing body, the demands are magnified 10-fold and unless you produce something satisfactory that entertains the majority, it won’t be long before you are looking over your shoulder and avoiding the daggers that emerge from the dark corners.
So far, this new concept of an Autumn Nations Cup has been a disaster on many fronts and for Irish rugby, it has raised far more questions than it has answered.
If Saturday's third- and fourth-place game, between Ireland and Scotland, were a Six Nations tie, I’d have no problem with rolling out the battle-hardened.
But it’s not.
And if the truth be known, nobody really cares, apart from the players and coaches, if Ireland finish first, second, or last, because the tournament has failed to excite the masses.
Even before a ball was kicked in anger, the tournament was rocked by the news that Japan had withdrawn because of Covid-19 travel complications, with Georgia stepping in.
Then, Fiji had to forgo their games against France, Scotland, and Italy, because of an outbreak in their squad, and now France, who play against England, are set to field a B team in the so-called showcase final. This is because of an agreement with the Top 14 clubs, which states that players can only appear in three of the five internationals this autumn, so their Top 14 clubs don’t lose too many players.
This is what happens when clubs are owned and managed by individuals, as the majority are in France.
When the you-know-what hits the fan, the first tendency is to look for assurances by gathering the wagons and seeking assistance from those whom you can trust, and this is exactly what Farrell and his coaching ticket have done by picking Johnny Sexton.
Without question, Sexton is the country’s best fly-half, but at 35 his lease of the number-10 jersey is nearing its expiry date. What will we do when he has packed up and moved on?
I can understand Sexton’s determination to remain in situ for as long as he can, and I truly hope that his reign doesn’t end up like his predecessor, Ronan O’Gara’s, who was cast aside without getting the send-off he had deserved and had worked so hard to achieve.
Starting Sexton on the bench would be my option and would give players like the Byrne brothers, Billy Burnes (injured), or even Munster players JJ Hanrahan and Ben Healy, the opportunity to get to grips with the physical and mental issues of playing international rugby.
Sexton, because of his vast experience, should now be entering the advisory stage of his international career and the handing-over process should begin in earnest.
After last year’s disastrous World Cup showing, Ireland needed to change how they played and while there have been signs of reformation, there need to be more.
During the Joe Schmidt era, Ireland operated on a very strict game plan. Players were not allowed change or alter how they went about building phases and scoring points.
It was Joe’s way or the highway and whilst it worked in the earlier days, it didn’t take sides long to understand that all you needed to halt Ireland’s advances was a strong fielding back-three to deal with Conor Murray’s box kicks and a selfless back row that was prepared to cut down Ireland’s one-out runners.
A lack of inventiveness in the midfield has been a big problem and two wrecking-ball type players is clearly not the answer.
There is an old adage in rugby that ‘You must earn the right to go wide’ and this right is obtained by grinding out the hard yards first.
However, there are also opportunities for coaches to come up with plays that can create gain-line advancements off first-phase possession, but for this to happen, you must have players who are capable of carrying out such instructions.
Pairing Chris Farrell with Robbie Henshaw, or Bundee Aki with Stuart McCloskey, or combinations of the same, is not the way forward, because they are all too similar in how they go about their business.
Individually, they are great, but as a coherent and effective method of creating line breaks, they are not producing the required values that international rugby demands.
I’m sure Sexton’s presence will add another dimension to this area of the field, but Farrell will most certainly need to look at alternatives going forward.
Up front, where most games are lost and won, Ireland must look to start dominating teams like Scotland.
Last week, the Irish forwards allowed Georgia to drag them down into a wrestling match and they lost sight of their primary function.
Ireland went on to win the game, but lost momentum and, more importantly, lost the respect of a nation.
Winning this final game will help repair some of the damage that playing in this tournament has caused. However, should they lose it, and do so without showing any kind of progression, you can expect the Sexton debacle to grow and grow and Farrell’s honeymoon period will be viewed as a disaster.
It will be interesting viewing, but not for the normal reasons.