Different time, different head coach, wildly contrasting results. For numerous reasons.
Beating Scotland and England would fatten up statistics that refuse to tell any lies.
It seemed like shrewd business when IRFU performance director David Nucifora added Andy Farrell to Joe Schmidt’s coaching ticket in 2016. That Warren Gatland named Farrell ahead of Shaun Edwards, his defence coach at Wales, on successive Lions tours speaks louder than the lavish praise that is bestowed on this vaunted motivator of rugby men.
Eleven months out from the World Cup in Japan, in the afterglow of a Grand Slam and felling the All Blacks twice in two years – unquestionably the high water mark in the 147 year history of Irish rugby – Farrell was announced as Joe Schmidt’s successor immediately after the 2019 tournament.
“As of now they are the number one team in the world,” said Steve Hansen, New Zealand’s then coach, following the monumental 16-9 result in Dublin.
By the following March, after Ireland’s spectacular collapse in form, Hansen chirped back in with advice for the famous hunters now hunted at every turn. “It’s different,” he observed. “Not many teams cope with it that well.”
Two years on no such worries exist as Ireland have slumped to seventh in the official rankings. Farrell’s win ratio comes in at 58 per cent from 12 test matches spread across three tournaments and two disjointed seasons. An abysmal win over Georgia and Italy (twice) buttress figures that could be worse had they embarked on a three test tour of Australia last summer.
Farrell’s record pales in comparison to Declan Kidney’s 81 per cent winning ratio in his first two seasons at the helm (2008-2010) or Joe Schmidt’s 78 per cent return from November 2013 until Ireland retained the Six Nations title at Stade de France in March 2015.
Should Ireland beat Scotland today and overcome England next Saturday, Farrell’s winning record would rise to 64 per cent. It drops to 57 per cent if they win one and lose the other. Two defeats would leave Farrell on 50 per cent midway through a four year contract that takes him through the 2023 World Cup in France.
Maybe, in secret, peaking at the big dance has become the IRFU’s primary aim. That would explain the poor light reflected by comparisons with Farrell’s tenure to the trophy-laden opening gambits under Kidney and Schmidt.
To be fair, Kidney inherited a group from Eddie O’Sullivan that had four second place finishes in the Six Nations over six seasons, when they also collected three Triple Crowns, the first in 2004 ending a 19 year drought, but the wily Cork man expertly meshed cross-generational talent to capture Ireland’s first Grand Slam since 1948.
An undefeated calendar year was completed by a Johnny Sexton inspired victory over the Springboks but come 2010 Kidney’s side left a Triple Crown behind them with a shock defeat to Scotland that ensured a depressing farewell to Croke Park.
They still finished second in the table behind France.
On paper, Schmidt’s first November in charge reads one win against Samoa and two defeats to Australia and New Zealand, but anybody who witnessed Richie McCaw’s invincibles will never forget the agonising end game in November 2013. That stirring 79-minute performance spring-boarded Ireland to back to back Six Nations titles, only sullied by defeat at Twickenham and a controversial loss to Wales in 2015.
Kidney gathered three trophies in 2009 – Triple Crown, Six Nations and Churchill Cup – while Schmidt at least equals this achievement by retaining the championship outright, a feat only previously done by Karl Mullen’s hardy souls in 1949.
Farrell’s Ireland has missed out on five trophies – two Six Nations, two Triple Crowns and the Nations Cup – with third place finishes described by Nucifora as an “average return.”
He earns some credit for capping 13 players, from Caelan Doris and Rónan Kelleher against Scotland in February 2020 to Ryan Baird and Craig Casey against Italy. Injury permitting, this quartet along with Hugo Keenan should form the core of Irish teams throughout the 2020s.
There were 17 new caps in Kidney’s first two seasons, seven of whom – Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Johnny Sexton, Sean Cronin and Sean O’Brien – became established internationals. Schmidt capped 14 players between November 2013 and March 2015 , four of whom – Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Rob Herring and Jared Payne – became established internationals.
Both the previous coaches had four extra test matches than Farrell to blood new players.
Another variable worth considering is the experience of the teams Kidney, Schmidt and Farrell each inherited. England coach Eddie Jones believes the Rugby World Cup cannot be won without an average age of 28 and 40 caps. The side Farrell fielded for the 2020 Six Nations decider in Paris had an average age of 28. Sexton, Conor Murray and Cian Healy amassed 273 of their 479 cap total, with an average of 32 caps leaving them short of Jones’s magic number.
The 2009 team that completed the slam in Cardiff also had an average age of 28 but the 664 caps spread out as 44 appearances per man. The 2014 team that won the title at Stade de France in Brian O’Driscoll’s 133rd and final Ireland game boasted 751 caps which divvies up as 50 per man. Their average age was 29.
Different times, different coaches, what separates each Irish side is the medals. Murrayfield today and England’s visit to Dublin can somewhat alter this reality but what’s undeniable is Ireland will enter season three under Andy Farrell without any tangible success.
Officially known as an “average return.”
Ireland under Declan Kidney (2008/09 to end of 2010 Six Nations)
Played – 18
Won – 14 (80.56% winning rate)
Draw – 1
Lost – 3
Ireland v Wales in Cardiff (Grand Slam game 2009): R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; S Ferris, D Wallace, J Heaslip.
Average age of starting XV: 28
Caps: 664 (average 44)
Trophies in first two seasons: Triple Crown, Six Nations, Churchill Cup.
Ireland under Joe Schmidt (2013/14 to end of 2015 Six Nations)
Played – 18
Won – 14 (77.78%)
Lost – 4
Ireland v France in Paris (Six Nations title game 2014): R Kearney; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Average age: 29
Caps: 751 (average 50)
Trophies in first two seasons: Six Nations 2014, test series win in Argentina, Six Nations 2015.
Ireland under Andy Farrell (2020 Six Nations to present)
Played – 12
Won – 7 (58.3%)
Lost – 5
Ireland v France in Paris (lost Six Nations title game 2020): J Stockdale; A Conway, R Henshaw, B Aki, H Keenan; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, A Porter; T Beirne, J Ryan; C Doris, W Connors, CJ Stander.
Average age of XV: 28
Caps: 479 (average 32)
Trophies: Zero from five.