Six Nations: How Andy Farrell built on the Joe Schmidt legacy to drive Ireland’s evolution

Six Nations: How Andy Farrell built on the Joe Schmidt legacy to drive Ireland’s evolution

Ireland’s route to the top of the world and tomorrow’s Grand Slam decider in Dublin has been all about breathing space.

Johnny Sexton has learned to take it easy on referees, and head coach Andy Farrell has worked out how to lighten the load on the Ireland squad.

Rory Best captained Ireland to the 2018 Grand Slam at the peak of boss Joe Schmidt’s glittering tenure. The former Lions hooker believes Ireland needed Schmidt’s famous taskmaster ways to set standards in discipline and rigour, but hailed Farrell for easing the pressure to storm to the top of the world rankings.

Ulster stalwart Best and former Leinster full-back Rob Kearney are Ireland’s only two-time Grand Slam winners, but a slew of others will join them if Ireland beat England tomorrow. Sexton can secure a fairytale Six Nations farewell by claiming the Grand Slam on his final tournament appearance.

The 37-year-old should also pass Ronan O’Gara’s record Six Nations points haul, with Ireland aiming to complete a Grand Slam in Dublin for the first time — and all on St Patrick’s weekend.

“Johnny has given so much to Ireland,” Best told Standard Sport. “And it hasn’t always been plain sailing for him. When he first took the captaincy, people were questioning his conduct with referees and body language.

Captain fantastic: Johnny Sexton is looking to win the Grand Slam in his final Six Nations with Ireland (PA)
Captain fantastic: Johnny Sexton is looking to win the Grand Slam in his final Six Nations with Ireland (PA)

“He’s worked very hard to become the leader that he is, and that’s why he deserves everything he could get on Saturday. What he had to change was just the optics, keeping his composure a little better with referees. He sees the game quicker, better and differently from anyone else.

“Where he’s matured out of sight as a captain and leader is realising that just because you see it straight away doesn’t mean everyone else will, and that the art of it is to bring people with you. And what Andy Farrell has done has been to allow people to be okay to make mistakes.”

Kiwi coach Schmidt turned Ireland’s fortunes on their head in six years at the Ireland helm, with Best hailing the former boss’s enduring impact.

“Joe came in and was trying to change a team,” said Best. “We were a team that was inconsistent, if you gave us downtime, we completely took the foot off the pedal, so he had to drive something to bring consistency.

“The amount of times you see a new coach follow on from an old coach and they decide that they need to completely reinvent the wheel. The biggest mistake coaches make, I think, is they forget to remember what the good things were and build on that, and then change things slightly. But that’s exactly what Faz has done.

I’m delighted for Andy Farrell. These have been the next stages in Ireland’s evolution

“Even bringing in Paul O’Connell was brilliant. Paulie loved the breakdown, and that was the one thing Joe did better than any other coach I’ve worked with. He understood the detail and how accurate you’ve got to be to win your ball, and how important quick ball was, so Paul is an extension of Joe there in Andy’s set-up.

“The way it was in the end under Joe, working hard and preparing was not a problem, in fact it was bringing people down again and relaxing to spend time with each other. Andy is so alert, he saw it, and I’m delighted for him. These have been the next stages in Ireland’s evolution.”

Best retired after the 2019 World Cup, with 124 caps, two victories over the All Blacks and two Grand Slams amid four Six Nations titles.

The Banbridge farmer’s son mixes agriculture with a culture and leadership role at insurance brokers Ardonagh as he navigates the transition to life after professional rugby.

This week, he has had all the wistful pangs of wishing he was still playing, but all those will disappear the moment the first monster hit goes in.

“That moment afterwards, where you’re in the changing room celebrating, the sense of achievement when it’s just the group and the staff, it’s amazing,” said Best.

“In 2009, it being the first Grand Slam in 61 years was huge, but then captaining the side in 2018 was incredibly special. If they win the Grand Slam, they will sit in the changing room afterwards with a beer and say, ‘God, that was hard’. You remember so much more of your career in those moments off the field. Games go by in a flash, but those special moments, they stay with you.”