One last hurdle for Farrell to restore Irish invincibility

If Ireland’s journey to the top of the world rankings was eventful, then their quest for a fourth-ever Grand Slam has been nothing short of tumultuous.

If Ireland’s journey to the top of the world rankings was eventful, then their quest for a fourth-ever Grand Slam has been nothing short of tumultuous.

Andy Farrell’s side had to do what no Irish side has ever managed previously to become world number one, by winning a series in New Zealand.

To retain top spot, Ireland beat France for the first time in the Farrell era and for a moment it looked as though they would cruise to a first Grand Slam since 2018.

Far from it, they were given a real scare by Italy in Rome and then had to cope with a litany of injuries to see off what captain Johnny Sexton described as the best Scotland team he has ever come up against at BT Murrayfield.

Four games down and four very different victories on show from the champions elect. For Farrell, the manner of victory in Edinburgh reaffirmed the belief that his is a truly special group of players.

“In terms of character and want and fight for one another, that’s the best game I’ve ever been involved in,” he said, reflecting on Ireland’s 22-7 triumph.

“If you’d seen us at half time you would have laughed because the whole team was laughing. It was organised chaos.”

Ireland were a point ahead at half-time but that was about all that had gone right for them in a truly remarkable 40 minutes of rugby.

They were denied what would have been the game’s opening try via a technicality, with Scotland hooker George Turner using an old ball at lineout which Caelan Doris intercepted to set up a score for Iain Henderson.

Those two would then depart through injury shortly after, as would hooker Dan Sheehan. His replacement, Ronan Kelleher, could only last half an hour and had to forfeit his throwing duties prior to half-time due to a shoulder problem.

Farrell is known for embracing adversity, from last-minute injury withdrawals to buses arriving late to match venues, but even by his standards this was a new level of challenging.

“We didn’t know if Ronan was going to be okay until 30 seconds before we went out because he was trying to get feeling back in his shoulder,” said Farrell.

“We made half a plan with Cian Healy at hooker because of his scrummaging. Josh [van der Flier] throwing in – what can’t he do? He took up golf three years ago and his handicap is in the single figures now.

“Organised chaos are the right words for how we went about our business. I said, ‘embrace it lads, this is exactly what we want.’ Everyone was smiling and up for it which says a lot.

“You’ve got nothing to lose in that situation, so what can you do – we couldn’t get the lads fit again to come on.

“What a memory. That is what sport is all about. Next is next week but we’ll remember that one for a long time.”

Ireland refused to let their misfortune rattle them, and delivered an assured second-half performance, scoring two tries and shipping none to end Scottish Triple Crown dreams.

The Championship title may well follow next week but it is not the only piece of silverware Ireland are targeting this year, with a World Cup to follow in the autumn.

If Farrell’s side are to swoop both trophies, then their game management, particularly in the closing stages, will have to be exemplary.

“The third quarter of our game has been the worst quarter of our play so far,” said Farrell.

“It was mentioned at half-time about us being better in that regard. They went for it and they imposed the game on Scotland and didn’t miss a beat.

“Of course it was a bit of organised chaos in regards to the players and the set-piece, but it went for them defensively in the scrum, and attack-wise, we were over the gain line.

“We started the second half like that and the most impressive part is we kept playing like that right until the death.

“We could have even got a bonus point and that just shows the character of the side.”

A bonus point might not be required to get Ireland over the line against wounded England on Super Saturday.

With a four-point cushion over France, they will be crowned champions if they avoid defeat against Steve Borthwick’s side.

Farrell, a former England player and coach, believes that their 53-10 defeat by France was a “one-off” and warned that they will be motivated by the chance to spoil the Dublin party.

More suffering ahead then it would seem, in the road to restoring Irish invincibility.

“I definitely don’t think the France game was reflective of the quality in that team,” said Farrell.

“The game ran away from them at 27-3, there was probably no way back in that regard, your game plan is out the window and the game just unfolds.

“Those games are one-offs, and there was some great play from France. It was more of a shock than anything.

“The emotions are probably dented for England, but knowing the players and coaching staff, there is no better occasion to try and turn it round than next week.

“We’ve seen that time and time again, and they will be a really tough opponent.”