Although the visit of Rugby Championship winners New Zealand is drawing much of the external focus, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is not looking beyond Saturday week’s Autumn Nations Series opener against Japan.
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Farrell was an assistant to his predecessor Joe Schmidt when the Brave Blossoms got the better of Ireland in the pool stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Flash forward to July of this year and the Wigan native headed up the coaching ticket as the men in green were forced to dig deep for a 39-31 victory against the Japanese at the Aviva Stadium.
Experience has taught Farrell to be wary of the challenge posed by the energetic, attack-driven Asian side, and he anticipates there will be a range of threats for his charges to deal with once they cross the white line next week.
Speaking today from the IRFU High Performance Centre, he said: “I’ve been on record saying before the admiration I’ve got for their coaching staff. I think Jamie (Joseph) and Tony Brown are outstanding coaches.
“The team is very well organised and they’ve got threats all over the field. Their attacking game is there for everyone to see.
“They work extremely hard for everyone to be on their feet, for everyone to be an option and therefore they’re able to play with good width in their game.
“They’re able to play a dynamic game that plays through you and an offloading game. Speed of ball is going to be a problem for us that we need to solve.
“Jamie, I know he drives hard at the physicality of the game. I think that has improved massively as well. Set-piece wise, we see it as being a huge challenge.
“That’s the reason why I said before that we love playing against Japan. Because it’s the type of test that we want.”
Of course, while his primary focus will be on Japan, Farrell does have one eye on Ireland’s upcoming meetings with New Zealand and Argentina at Irish Rugby HQ.
The following week, in my opinion, we’ve got the world’s best team (New Zealand) coming to the Aviva. Everyone is going to get excited about that.
“Argentina have been playing away for five months. We know how physical and abrasive and emotional that game is going to be.
“This is perfect for us. Top level rugby is all about consistently performing, week in, week out, as best you can. That’s the challenge ahead of us.”
Should he be selected for the Japanese game, Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton will reach the milestones of 100 senior caps for his country.
It will be almost 12 years to the day – November 21, 2009 to be precise – that Sexton made his Test debut against Fiji in an autumn international at the RDS. Whereas the man himself believes resilience has been the key to his remarkable longevity, Farrell was quick to pinpoint some other factors.
“Johnny’s love for the game, his determination to keep improving. His drive is second to none. I can’t say enough about the bloke. He’s a one-in-a-generation type player,” he said of the 36-year-old out-half.
“These types of players, they don’t tend to know what makes them tick that much. They just love being in it. They love wanting to improve.
“They love trying to drive the team to get better. They love performing on the big stage. He’s all of those things thrown into one.”
With the 2023 Rugby World Cup tournament now just over 22 months away, the forthcoming window is seen as the start of the road that will lead Ireland to the eagerly-awaited global showpiece in France.
There is a lot of rugby to be played between now and then, but Farrell is not shying away from taking a long-term approach. He added:
“I think we should embrace it. It’s two years off and it’s a long way off, but the road ahead is brilliant for us. The challenges of this year alone is going to stand us in great stead to learn from those experiences.
“The three games that we’ve got coming up is a fantastic opportunity for us to step forward. The Six Nations is always the Six Nations. The pressure of that, to win a trophy.
“Then we finish our (2021/22) season by going to New Zealand on a three-game tour. An Irish side has never won over there.
All of these experiences are going to stand for us. They have to stand for something. We want the nation to be proud of us, and why don’t we start embracing that challenge from here on in and use it going forward?
“There’s always going to be room for improvement. I think our biggest room for improvement is consistency of performance at this level.
“I’m talking about backing up a good performance with another performance and another performance. That’s why this campaign is going to be good for us.”