Challenging five-game schedule in New Zealand offers the Ireland head coach a real opportunity to get his team ready for next year’s World Cup in France
Ireland’s players landed in Auckland on Monday and were greeted by clear, blue skies, but it won’t take much for the clouds to descend.
Not since Warren Gatland took the 1998 contingent on a long and winding journey around South Africa has an Irish team faced such a schedule, and even that seven-match adventure only featured two Tests against the world champions.
This time, Ireland take on the All Blacks three times, with games against the Maori scheduled four days before the first Test and five days out from a potential series decider.
For the 40 players who’ve travelled, it will be an unforgettable month. The focus now is making sure that the memories are positive.
Ireland’s last game on New Zealand soil was the infamous 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks in Hamilton – a sobering portent of what can happen in the final week of a gruelling tour at the end of a long season.
Since then, the relationship between the two teams has changed utterly.
The win last November was Ireland’s third in six meetings and, while the All Blacks came out on top emphatically when it really mattered in Yokohama at the 2019 World Cup, there is no doubt that there is more knowledge of and respect towards the players who arrived there on Monday.
So, their card is marked as they prepare for Wednesday’s meeting with the Maori who will be sent out with the mission of softening up the tourists ahead of the opening Test.
Farrell has said this tour will be tougher than a World Cup campaign, while he’s also asserted that he sees this as the opening chapter in Ireland’s bid to do something special in France.
Thus, he’ll have a variety of aims as he hones in on refining the game-plan and strengthening his options ahead of the defining year of his tenure.
First and foremost, Farrell wants a seminal away win.
As well as that elusive World Cup quarter-final victory, a win over the All Blacks in New Zealand is the great unchecked box on the Irish to-do list.
And, while this team won away against 14-man England in Twickenham this season, that victory over 14 men doesn’t quite quell the doubts about them on the road.
The team’s mental resilience has been a work in progress since the damage inflicted by a harrowing 2019 campaign and Farrell has been steadily toughening them up.
The bookies rate Ireland as 7/1 outsiders to win the series and 8/11 to finish without a Test win. If you reckon they won’t win any of the five games, you can get 3/1.
A Series win would infuse this group with incredible belief. A Test victory would give them something to build on ahead of a pivotal year.
These All Blacks are human, so the minimum they should be aiming for is three wins on tour.
Fix the scrum
This is a big month for John Fogarty, the Ireland scrum coach, who will have watched the end of the season with much concern.
Leinster and Munster’s scrums were dominated by larger opponents in the business-end of Europe, coming on the back of the Irish scrum struggling against France, England and Scotland.
New Zealand are not in the same scrummaging league as South Africa, France, or England, but this is a window of opportunity for the Irish pack to nail their set-piece.
Throw in the fact that former Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek is over the Kiwis’ scrum and you have a lot of intel on the other side of the fence.
Rónan Kelleher and Dave Kilcoyne are marked absent, but otherwise this is close to the contingent that will be in France next year.
The worry is that Tadhg Furlong is carrying a back injury and Andrew Porter has played a lot of rugby this season.
Although he’s been superb in the loose, opponents believe Porter can be got at since his switch from tighthead; while Dan Sheehan’s dimensions are not as made for scrummaging as Kelleher’s.
Tom O’Toole is highly rated by the coaches, but there are no major white knights outside the squad ready to change everything. The solutions must come from within.
It’s up to Ireland to be smarter and better technically to be ready when the big beasts come calling.
Weaponise the bench
Ireland’s bench came in for plenty of praise when they saw out the game against England, but Farrell will have taken note of the way Leinster in particular didn’t get enough out of their reserves in the biggest games of the season.
Thus far, Irish rugby has refused to consider following the South African ‘Bomb-squad’ model of a six-two split, although Farrell often likes to have an explosive centre in the No 23 shirt rather than worry about covering all the bases.
With the sizeable Joe McCarthy now on board and Tadhg Beirne just back fit, there’s the option of having a whole new tight-five on the bench, while Mike Lowry, Ciarán Frawley, Joey Carbery and Jimmy O’Brien have the flexibility to cover across the backline if they go for a 6/2 split.
The world’s best team are using the tactic to devastating effect; it’s worth trialling at the very least.
Get Ryan back to his best
It has been a tough year for James Ryan, who has had to be stood down after yet more head injuries while also receiving criticism for his captaincy calls in Paris and the standards of his overall performances.
Ryan turns 26 a week after the tour and he has plenty more to give in blue and green, but he looks like he’s in need of a confidence boost.
Having Iain Henderson back fit will help, the duo work well in tandem and the Ulster captain’s size allows Ryan to get out in the loose. McCarthy’s emergence as a tighthead lock could allow Ryan to redefine himself.
However, it’s equally fair to say that the form and fitness of others puts pressure on the vice-captain that wasn’t there in the past.
Farrell will hope that that brings the best out of a player who has a big second act within him.
Beef up the out-half depth
If Ireland return with realistic alternatives to Johnny Sexton, then this will be three weeks well spent.
He’ll be 38 next autumn and, while there’s no doubt the captain will be No 10 if fit in France, there’s an urgent need to get more elite minutes into Joey Carbery, Harry Byrne, Frawley and Lowry.
Leinster rarely ask Sexton to back up three matches in a row and it might make sense to rotate him and Carbery for the second Test, while Byrne should start one of the two Maori games.
Time is running out for getting experience into these players and if they don’t do it Ireland risk repeating familiar mistakes of World Cups past.
Frawley’s position is an interesting one; he has the calm, game-sense and physicality for the Test arena but he’s played more rugby at No 12 than 10.
Could he emerge as a realistic option which gives you more off the bench?
If Farrell can return with answers to these questions with a couple of wins thrown in, he’ll have had a good month.