When Andy Farrell first gathered his Ireland squad in Dublin last month ahead of their departure to New Zealand, he sat all 40 players down in a room and asked each of them one simple question: “Do you believe you can win a series in New Zealand?”
he word ‘series’ is important to note because Farrell could easily have said ‘Test’, yet in his eyes, this group shouldn’t have been satisfied with aiming to just beat the All Blacks on Kiwi soil for the first time – he was in no doubt that they could go one step further.
It’s not easy to get buy-in across the board in a situation like that, especially when the weight of history is such that the idea of winning one of the three Tests was daunting enough without contemplating what it would mean to clinch a series.
But Farrell’s aura is such that by the time the players walked out of the team meeting, their focus had already shifted to achieving what for so long had seemed like mission impossible.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a man, who has been involved in successful team environments since he was 16, possesses a unique ability to not only create a strong culture, but also cultivate it in such a way that everyone feels part of it. And that is why the squad will arrive back in Dublin today as history-makers.
We have spent the last three-and-a-half weeks following Ireland around the North and South Island. During that time, we have had countless conversations with Farrell and his players, and you could sense the strong team bond that exists.
Even after a disappointing first week that saw Ireland lose the first Test as well as to Maori All Blacks, the wheels could easily have come off.
Yet, there was never any sense of panic from anyone in or around the squad. If anything, there was an utter belief that they could turn things around.
Trailing 2-0 and staring down the barrel of a whitewash, Ireland summoned the belief that Farrell had instilled during that first team meeting to flip the series on its head.
Taking on such a gruelling tour the year before the World Cup had the potential to leave lasting scar tissue. Instead, Farrell and his players had the courage of their convictions.
By his own admission, there were times when Farrell wondered if he had asked too much of this group of players and backroom staff, but he never lost sight of the bigger picture.
“Every day. Every day, but that was the point,” Farrell said.
“I asked too much of myself and the staff as well but that was the point – to see whether we had excuses, to see whether we had people who just go tunnel vision and start worrying about themselves instead of ‘team first’ – because that’s a big mantra of ours.
“So that way we were always going to get the learnings that we were craving. Of course there’s a bit of luck here and there but there was never any excuses.
“Only these guys know – the people that’s part of the group know the truth. We put them under some immense pressure on purpose and they never missed a beat.
“Not one person had an excuse, not one person gave out about anything. They’ve been unbelievably easy to manage and they’ve all bought in and therefore to come away with what is the hardest thing to do in world rugby under those conditions, is pretty special.”
These last few weeks have provided a fascinating, deeper insight into Farrell’s mindset. With a smaller travelling press pack, the atmosphere is far more laid back than say it is during the Six Nations.
For so much of his tenure, Farrell has sat in front of a laptop addressing the media, but his personality has shone through in-person, in such a way that you can see why he is so popular amongst the players.
Taking over from Joe Schmidt, he went about changing things behind-the-scenes and while some wondered if it was a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum, it has since been proved that the straining of the leash has allowed players to come out of their shells.
Farrell has been steadfast in his view that the biggest scope for improvement was around his side’s mental strength.
‘Performance anxiety’ was cited as one of the reasons for Ireland’s collapse at the 2019 World Cup, and having hired renowned performance coach Gary Keegan, he too appears to have made a big difference.
As the All Blacks roared back after the restart in Wellington, Farrell’s men refused to buckle under the pressure, and rather than hold on, they went down the other end of the pitch, scored a try, and avoided a nervy finish.
“You’ve seen it in abundance,” Farrell said of the mental fortitude.
“The best part of the game was when they came back at us, we stayed neutral.
“We never missed a beat, we got back on track. We knew that they were always going to have a big purple patch because that’s what they always do. I thought we were mentally very tough and we’re getting better at that.
“Are we anywhere near where we want to be? We’re not. We’re definitely not. You might think that’s me just throwing that out there but it’s the truth.
“You’ve got this fella (Johnny Sexton). We’ve got people telling us to keep him at home (before we go) so we can build something.
“But what an opportunity it would have been to see how it’s properly done, to prepare a team, to be a world-class player and to believe so much that little old Ireland can beat New Zealand in New Zealand. That’s why you bring your best players, so they can grow the group.
“It’s up to everyone else to back them up. So look what we’ve got. We’ve got Johnny and Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw up here and we’ve got Joe McCarthy and Cian Prendergast and Craig’s (Casey) learning and Ciarán Frawley – they’re (down) here.
“So how much growth is there to get to that (level)? These lads are not coming down so how much growth is there? So that’s the point of the tour.
“It’s up to us to make sure that we keep on going. But let’s not be scared by a little bit of success, y’know? Hitting the straps too early again? Couldn’t be any further from our minds. The only focus for us is: Keep pushing forward.”
The success of this tour will stand the test of time. Ireland finally won a series in New Zealand, a stunning feat which may never be repeated again.
And the most exciting thing is that this feels like part of a journey rather than the end point.
Farrell’s strong ethos created the belief that paved the way for this historic success, which is why Ireland’s rugby supporters are now most definitely daring to dream big.
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