Column: Cooke's Six Nations Corner

Feb 14, 2023 17:49 By Michael Cooke
Column: Cooke's Six Nations Corner
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The coaching ticket driving Ireland to new heights

There’s a first time for everything in life and last Saturday was the first time Andy Farrell masterminded an Ireland victory over France.
Ireland have now amassed 13 home wins in a row, a new record and have only suffered defeat in two of their last 23 games.
How have Ireland managed to achieve such consistency? A multi-faceted approach is the answer.
The technical ability of the players is remarkable in its own right but becomes multiplied when a strong coaching ticket is put in place.

Coaching ticket

Head coach Andy Farrell has masterminded 25 wins from 32 Test matches equating to a 78% win ratio, the highest of any permanent Irish manager during the professional era.
Crucially though, it’s not all down to one man but an impressive backroom team.
Paul O’Connell and Simon Easterby have transformed the Irish pack, as evidenced by solid performances against both France and South Africa.
Last week, I noted how Ireland’s attacking innovation has become a strong weapon in their arsenal. Again this is partially attributable to Mike Catt, the team’s attack coach.
Mack Hansen’s try against South Africa was used as a reference point. This time, the Springboks were outsmarted by Ireland’s fast passing compounded with the constant availability of support runners.
A magnificent move for sure but it was upstaged by the build-up and execution of Hugo Keenan’s try against the French last Saturday.

Gary Keegan

Another man who’s effected his imprint on the team is performance coach Gary Keegan who specialises in the psychological preperation.
A detailed review into Ireland’s disappointing World Cup campaign in 2019 cited psychological shortcomings as a key factor behind their implosion.
"Performance anxiety or stress, I do believe it was really relevant for us before and during the tournament,” said IRFU's performance director David Nucifora
"The whole area of psychology has to be improved as well as health and well-being."
Enter Gary Keegan, a man of compelling experience who’s well placed to satisfy this requirement. His involvement with the Irish boxing team yielded seven medals across two Olympic Games (2008 and 2012) including that Katie Taylor gold.

Mental fortitude

With the world cup looming, Ireland’s mental fortitude has yet to face the ultimate test but notable improvements are still evident here.
Take the third quarter of last Saturday’s win over France. Ireland are five points clear on 48 minutes. France are within touching distance of the Irish try line only to be stopped via Stuart McCloskey winning a turnover penalty.
McCloskey’s play was the embodiment of sheer resilience especially when you factor in the enforced departures of important players like Tadhg Beirne and Johnny Sexton around this time. Further examples would follow, however.
Nine minutes later, Ireland were under pressure again only to be relieved by a spectacular 50-22 kick from Hugo Keenan.

Squad depth

Furthermore, the composure of the replacement half-backs is another case in point. Ross Byrne wasn’t over-awed by filling Sexton’s shoes at out-half and Craig Casey was equally assured at scrum-half. Highly encouraging given the magnitude of the contest.
The coaching ticket are key drivers here; Farrell has always advocated the importance of squad depth.
Last week, Farrell discovered one of his form players would be sidelined through injury, namely Dan Sheehan.
Ireland were already without Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson Park, Cian Healy and Robbie Henshaw but Farrell refused to engage in pessimistic thinking.
When many saw absentees, Farrell saw it as opportunity for others to shine; “Anyone would miss a player in that type of form. But at the same time, it’s great in the sense that this is exactly what’s going to happen down the track in the World Cup.
"International rugby is only going to get bigger and better, so therefore it’s always going to be about the squad.
"When you get to the World Cup, you’ve a smaller squad, there’s a 12-day turnaround there as far as concussion is concerned, so you’re always going to be numbers down and you’ve got to be able to roll with the punches.''
The players replicate the same attitude - a major source of optimism.


No room for complacency just yet though; the Six Nations is far from over and Ireland still have an world cup campaign ahead.
That said, their current form is highly encouraging. The past 14 months has seen a summer test series triumph in New Zealand; a clean sweep of victories at the Autumn Nations Series as well as a perfect start to the Six Nations.
Aristotle’s quote on synergy springs to mind when discussing the Irish players and coaching ticket; “the whole is more than the sum of its parts”.
The aggregate quality of all sections of Ireland’s set-up is clear for all to see.
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