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'We might have to deprogram the head coach' - Luke Fitzgerald on how Andy Farrell can move past Schmidt era


Andy Farrell was pleased to get off to a winning start as Ireland coach (Donall Farmer/PA)

Andy Farrell was pleased to get off to a winning start as Ireland coach (Donall Farmer/PA)

PA Wire/PA Images

Andy Farrell was pleased to get off to a winning start as Ireland coach (Donall Farmer/PA)

Amid the disappointment emanating from Lansdowne Road last Saturday evening in spite an opening day victory, the overriding feeling was one of deja vu.

After all, wins over Scotland were par for the course in Joe Schmidt's reign with the surprising 2017 Six Nations loss the only blemish from the eight games contested in his seven years in charge. Indeed, it could be argued that the final truly impressive performance of his tenure was the 27-3 trouncing that served as a false dawn for last year's World Cup.

But the disappointment stemmed from the fact that the performance had more in common with the stutters that made up the rest of that Japanese campaign rather than something that indicated movement towards a new dawn. The over-reliance on the box-kick, in particular, was the focus of many a grumble and with it the reluctance to throw Ulster's John Cooney into the starting XV despite his hugely impressive form.

It's understandable that reliance on the same core of the squad that imploded in Japan makes a change in style all the more difficult to quickly implement. But for Luke Fitzgerald, the continuity provided by the promotion of Andy Farrell from within the Schmidt coaching ticket that was trumpeted as an advantage when announced is also a factor.

"When you think about it, it felt like Joe was very pragmatic and he's always gonna have stats to back up what he's talking about. So it's very hard to argue with him when it comes down to a game plan," the former Ireland star told The Left Wing, Independent.ie's podcast in association with Land Rover.

"And let's face it, I think he's one of the best coaches ever, in the game. He's been successful everywhere he's gone. So deprogramming the players might be a challenge. Some of them have been around a long time under Joe with Leinster and Ireland so that could be a challenge.

"But there might be a case where we have to deprogram the head coach. It could be a case of that.

"Simon Easterby has been in there a long time as well with Joe. He's a very smart guy and an excellent coach. Had a good stint with the Scarlets and has his own ideas but you just wonder how much they're actually going to change. And how much scope they have to change given they're probably been heavily influenced by the guy.

"We also have to say that not everything was wrong with what Joe did as well. He's come unstuck at two big tournaments but one of them was unlucky. The last one you'd have to say there was a bit of a dip in form, but that was coming from one of our best seasons ever. So what that tells me is that you probably have to build and change a few small things but not everything.

"Maybe the game was kind of erratic and they didn't get to show any changes but it just looked very familiar. And I think it is hard to deprogram yourself from having been with such an impressive guy who probably had a big impact on your coaching thoughts, how you think about the game and all the different facets of it. He would have had a big impact on that."

Fitzgerald's own career saw a significant turnover of coaches and styles with time spent under such luminaries as Michael Cheika, Matt O'Connor, Declan Kidney and Schmidt among others.

Yet from his experience, unless the head coach came from outside, the impetus for change during his career was often driven by backroom staff fresh to the ticket. And it's for this reason that he believes that those brought in after the World Cup should be where Farrell leans on to make the difference.

"Les Kiss was always great for that. He was a real innovator. He was always trying something new, I just loved working with him, I thought Kissy was brilliant because he had the ability to be very introspective about his own contributions. And I always thought he was trying to change and get an edge," the ex-Leinster man explained.

"I think Joe was very similar to that as well. I think he probably had a bedrock of things that I'd probably still subscribe to. My concern is that I didn't see any evidence or anything consistent in terms of small changes there (v Scotland).

"Where I saw change in different coaches was probably when you get a new head coach who's come completely from outside. Like (Michael) Cheika to Joe.

"But where you get change from that afterwards is from the people you bring in around you. So you look at Leo Cullen for example, who would have worked with Joe closely and probably would have been heavily impacted by him and Matt O'Connor. He brought in Stuart Lancaster who completely changed it.

"So maybe it's from someone like Mike Catt that you get the real drive for new ideas and growth. I hope he gets the time and has the confidence of Andy Farrell. And has the confidence in himself to go on and imprint a new style of play or a few new ideas into the game because it needs it."

Online Editors