HE may only be in the job a year but next season’s Six Nations championship would appear to be a make-or-break one for Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, as there has been little evidence to suggest that Ireland have made any strides forward in this time.
Captain Jonathan Sexton has recently been at pains to tow the party line, with him quipping in a press conference after the poor performance against Georgia in the Autumn Nations Cup that: “I know you guys don’t agree but we feel like we are progressing and we need to show it.”
2020 for Ireland was a case of six victories from nine matches. There were routine victories over Georgia and Italy, and a pair of victories over poor Welsh and Scottish sides that bookended the year, but in the three big games that Ireland played this year they were found wanting.
It is probably unfortunate that all these three games were on the road, with Ireland collecting two defeats at Twickenham and one at the Stade de France, but it has to be accepted that Ireland looked a level below both England and France this year.
Indeed, it was hard not to be worried, and even a tad jealous, at the sight of a young French side going to Twickenham last weekend without a host of their top players and still forcing sudden-death extra time against Eddie Jones’ powerful first string selection.
When Ireland were missing some of their leading lights against Georgia the wheels almost came off.
Ireland seem to currently have no choice but to flog their captain Sexton in every game, as the evidence would suggest that in his absence Ireland seriously struggle.
To be that reliant on an injury-prone 35-year-old is extremely worrying, and it is something that needs to change, and soon.
Ulster’s Billy Burns has shown signs that he might be able to plug a hole for Ireland, but Leinster’s Ross Byrne has yet to look the part in Irish colours, while all faith seems to have been lost in Connacht’s Jack Carty.
It will be interesting to see how much game time Leinster’s Harry Byrne and Munster’s Ben Healy get over the Christmas period, as a few good performances at club level could well propel them into the Six Nations picture.
Given the virtual conveyer belt of young talent at Leinster and the emerging crop at Munster there would appear to be plenty options available to Farrell if he concludes that the squad has gone stale and requires refreshing, but bringing in new players would probably be just an exercise in moving the deckchairs around the Titanic unless an identifiable way of playing emerges in the spring.
Farrell has retained a lot of the Joe Schmidt playbook that had gone past its sell-by date at the World Cup in 2019, and while results would suggest that Ireland have enough brain and brawn to see off the likes of Wales and Scotland at the minute, there are simply not enough strings to Ireland’s bow for them to compete against the top sides in world rugby.
Against England Ireland may have felt they were trying to be expansive, but they were merely playing into England’s hands.
They did not have the pick and drive game to hurt them around the fringes, which meant they had very little front foot ball, which invariably meant the outhalf could not play flat, so the passes out the back just went too deep to hurt England’s impressive blitz defence.
Ireland were crying out for an effective kicking game to turn England around, but when that was eventually attempted it was too little too late.
And the real worry for Farrell must be that Wales are due a revival at any moment now and low and behold Ireland’s opening Six Nations fixture is in Cardiff.
A loss in that game and the pressure on Farrell will build, and with the impressive and ever-improving French next up in Dublin it could quickly turn into an awkward tournament for Ireland.
Normally when France and England come to Dublin it presents Ireland with their best chance of Six Nations success, and who knows, Ireland might yet rediscover some of that 2018 form and push for the title, but right now it is hard to see it.
Ireland managed to win three of their Six Nations ties in 2020 and the campaign was generally proclaimed to be a poor one.
You would imagine that anything less than three wins in 2021 and Ireland might be looking for a new head coach.