Thursday 21 September 2017

Alan Quinlan: Andy Farrell deserves credit for keeping his first clean sheet

Simon Zebo is tackled by France's Noa Nakaitaci during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo is tackled by France's Noa Nakaitaci during the RBS Six Nations match at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

With expectation comes an added pressure but if players step onto the pitch expecting to win, that can only be a good thing.

There has been an unbelievable shift in mentality in Irish rugby in recent years and it was evident again in the atmosphere at the Aviva on Saturday.

It felt a little bit flat on the final whistle but overall it was a positive result. I think supporters were hoping for a more clinical edge which is of course coming on the back of beating New Zealand, South Africa and Australia last year.

Down through the years, we have always embraced the underdog tag and that went right down through to the provinces. We have to be careful that we don't get too ahead of ourselves but I think this Ireland team are able to handle the increased pressure that is on them.

Expecting to win and expecting to do so with a really good performance is a good thing. It drives the players' standards and that's exactly what we should be aiming for.

As we saw against Scotland, it doesn't always work out but it all stems from a winning mentality that this team have created for themselves. It started when Brian O'Driscoll scored the hat-trick in Paris in 2000 and later when provinces were winning trophies.

There is nothing wrong with setting your standards high but it's important then to back it up. I can assure you that when this Ireland team looks around the dressing room at each other, they expect the same high standards. They handled that pressure really well to get the win.

When guys have full belief and confidence in each other, things click on the pitch. You only have to look at Ireland's impressive defensive display to see that.

Andy Farrell has copped his fair share of flak for the rate at which Ireland were leaking tries but he deserves huge credit as his side didn't concede a try for the first time since he came into the job last year.

It's very hard to keep teams try-less, especially the good ones, but it's a massive boost to do it against someone like France. It's like keeping a clean sheet in soccer.

We limited their chances and I know some people will probably say that their attack wasn't that sharp but the fact is Ireland negated the threat that they posed and scrambled really well in defence.

We were punished by Scotland in the wide channels and France looked to do something similar with Louis Picamoles et al loitering on the flanks but Ireland cleverly took away a lot of their space.

It may seem simple but I know from playing that if you're part of a team that keeps the opposition try-less, it gives you a huge boost of confidence and they'll need that going to Cardiff.

People on the outside probably don't realise how significant that is and on the back of some questions aimed at Farrell, it was timely.

It's something that players and coaches will talk about and there will be immense pride and satisfaction from a defensive point of view.

It means that the systems in place are working on the day and that the hard work that is being done behind the scenes is paying off. In saying that, 14 missed tackles was high and they will want to lower that count but as I said, the scramble defence and work-rate was excellent.

France had very little opportunities to get into a rhythm. They were forced to go to ground by good tackle technique from the Irish players and the ability to take away their place. It was a very intelligent defensive display.

Our attack will have to improve however, especially against Wales, because I think we are going to have to score tries to beat them.

Wales' backs are to the wall now and make no mistake about it, they are going to come out firing so Ireland's attack needs to be much sharper than it was on Saturday.

We're creating good opportunities, particularly off the set-piece, which was very good again. The lineout was top notch and we still haven't lost a scrum in this season's Six Nations. At times, we're forcing it a bit. There were a few timing issues with guys carrying the ball but there are two weeks now to fine-tune those little things before we hit the home straight.

I think we need to take a step or two back from the gain line and look to use more footwork in contact, especially on slower ball. That will generate quicker ball for Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw to attack and to get more width on their game.

The disappointing thing for me is that we only had four line breaks and that will not be enough against Wales or England. The ambition and desire to attack was evident early on when we had kickable penalties but decided to go for the corner.

Too often after building a number of phases, our play broke down in turning the ball over in contact or handling errors. So there are definitely things to work on which is what's needed with two games left to play.

Having Sexton back to his best is a huge boost and Conor Murray certainly benefited from having him in the side. Both half-backs were outstanding.

You can see that Garry Ringrose's confidence levels are growing and having the familiarity of Sexton and Henshaw inside of him is only going to help him improve.

Ireland are in a good place as they build towards Cardiff in two weeks. I get the feeling that there is more to come from this team as they look to live up to those welcome heightened expectations.

Irish Independent

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