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Rugby

23rd Jan 2024

“I’ve never been one for shying away from that” – Andy Farrell sets Ireland a bold Six Nations target

Patrick McCarry

Six Nations

“I was in David Humphreys’ room – everything was green, decorated for the Irish players!”

It was Six Nations launch day and, in a change from the usual London jaunt, Dublin’s Guinness Storehouse was playing host. The drinks brand is sponsoring the men’s and women’s championships, this year, and was making a big deal about it.

Wales’ Warren Gatland was asked, during his press conference rotation, about how much had changed in the game since he started coaching, in the 1990s. “THIS!” he replied, with a wave of his arms.

He was in a room with about 60 reporters, getting live-streamed on Zoom, there were about 40 cameras and phones capturing his every move, someone was filming a TV promo outside the glass walls and, across the way, players were sitting on a brown leather couch, watching clips from a Netflix docuseries on the Six Nations.

“The demands of the job are the demands of media and social media,” Gatland reflected. “That’s the stuff that has gone through the roof!”

First up in that press conference area – usually a dining area but one that had been converted to accommodate this travelling media circus – was Italy. Their new coach, Gonzalo Quesada, is a former Argentina international and he was the sharpest dressed of any of us there, on Monday.

It must have been the first Italian press conference in over 20 years that did not feature a Sergio Parisse question. That legendary No.8 has not played a Test match since 2019 but he had been in more comeback stories than Conor McGregor, in that time period.

Quesada played against Ireland at the 1999 World Cup and shared a funny story about his Dublin hotel room being decked out in Irish colours. Ireland had been expected to beat Los Pumas, in Lens, and play France at Lansdowne Road in the quarter final. The Argentineans had other ideas, and Quesada got to sleep in a bed made for David Humphreys, all week.

There was some early spice [hopefully the Netflix cameras caught it] as Italy captain Michele Lamaro rinsed the Welsh over their 2022 loss to his side, in Cardiff. “They were a bit arrogant,” he recalled. “They were six points ahead but turned down kick to make it nine points.”

Gonzalo Quesada and Italy captain Michele Lamaro. (Credit: Ben Brady/INPHO)

Co-captains, here we go again

Next up were the Scots, with Gregor Townsend still at the helm and two new captains. Saying that, Finn Russell was back with Bath while Rory Darge (currently out injured) took on the media duties. Lightening the load already.

Asked if there would be a designated match-day captain, Townsend ripped, “You’ll have to wait and see! You have to say to the referee, before the game, who do you want to chat to? Is it okay, two lads talking to you?”

Jamie Ritchie was captain, last year, but has been told his focus ‘is to be the best player he can be, and get in the team on merit’.

Given that we were in Dublin, there were a fair few Irish questions thrown at the Scots. Townsend rued his team for ‘not kicking on’ in the second half of their Murrayfield loss to Andy Farrell’s side. Pressed again on how his side can learn from past close calls, Townsend commented, “It’s a part of success – failing.”

The Scots are overdue some success in this tournament. They have not won a title since 1999, when it was the Five Nations, and are sick of the ‘failure’ part in that recipe for success.

“Give us an intense stare, there, Pete. Lovely!” (Credit: Ben Brady/INPHO)

Holding themselves like Six Nations champions

Andy Farrell and Peter O’Mahony were striding around the storehouse with purpose. They had a hard out at 4:30pm, and they got about their business with ruthless efficiency.

The duo, coach and his new captain, breezed through their press briefing before heading on different paths. O’Mahony was collared for more photos and social media bits while Farrell did a ‘huddle’ with eight or nine Irish rugby reporters.

“We all know that winning a Six Nations is very hard to do because of the standard of the teams what we’ve got in the competition continues to grow and that’s why we all love it,” said Farrell.

“We want to win every game and winning matters. I’ve never been one for shying away from that. I’ll say the same.

“But we’re realists and we know that it’s difficult… It’s about getting ourselves to be in with a shout, however that may look on the final weekend. That has to be what we’re aiming for.”

England head coach Steve Borthwick was going solo as Storm Isha prevented new captain from flying over to Dublin.

Now heading into his second Six Nations as head coach, Borthwick admitted, “It takes players a while to fully trust you.”

He spoke a lot about changing the team’s mind-set and then outlined the three core pillars he wants – “Good players, tactically aligned and fighting with every single thing they’ve got.”

Wales scrumhalf Gareth Davies. (Credit: Ben Brady/INPHO)

NFL questions at the Six Nations launch

Warren Gatland was joined by experienced scrumhalf Gareth Davies and the topic of conversation circled two players in their early 20s.

Gatland has named 21-year-old Dafydd Jenkins to captain Wales, in the absence of Jac Morgan. He compared the Exeter lock to legendary Welsh star Alun Wyn Jones and an English World Cup winner. Gatland remarked:

“The best player I was ever lucky to coach was Lawrence Dallaglio – the bigger the challenge, the bigger the game, the more he was up for it… he was never going to back away from a fight. I see that in Daffyd, too.”

Louis Rees-Zammit is a year older than Jenkins, and is already leaving Wales and Test rugby behind. The 22-year-old, who toured with the Lions in 2021, is off to give the NFL a crack, securing a release from his Gloucester contract to do so.

“It happened very, very quickly,” said Gatland. “He got a call on Sunday night for a combine or try-out, to hopefully get a call-up by an NFL team. All I can say is he’s a young man, at 22, to get a chance to do something different, and follow his dreams… if it didn’t work out, he’d be welcomed back with open arms by all of us.”

There was one question on a player slightly older than Zammit and Jenkins – Leinster back-row, Rhys Ruddock. Now aged 33, Ruddock has not played for Ireland in almost five years and is unlikely to break back into that squad. Linked with a possible switch to Wales, with whom his father led to a 2005 Grand Slam, Gatland said:

“It’s something that, at the moment, Rhys would be potentially available after a few games. If we picked up a couple of injuries… ultimately, he made the decision to play for Ireland… if he were 5 or 6 years younger, it might be a different story… it might be a short-term answer. He’s a quality player, but it’s more of a wait-and-see.”

Rhys Ruddock of Ireland is tackled by Igor Galinovskiy and Andrey Ostrikov of Russia during the 2019 World Cup. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Dupont, Dupont and more Dupont

Before moving on to France – dialling in virtually after Storm Isha hindered their travel plans – a funny line from Wales’ Gareth Davies.

Rugby players are very often game-to-game focused. Ask them a question about a team not up next on the fixture list and they can sometimes turtle up. Such was the case when Davies was asked what made Ireland such a good team.

“Ireland are well-drilled and very well coached. They’ve always got good leaders – I know Johnny Sexton has moved on but you’ve got guys like… Ross Byrne, and guys like him.”

Ross Byrne currently out injured, of course, but at least Davies plucked out a name from the hat.

Gregory Alldritt and Fabien Galthie were in their France trackie tops for their virtual briefing and most of the questions were about a guy who will not be in this year’s Six Nations [the opening rounds, at least] – Antoine Dupont.

“It’d been nearly two years since we were aware of Dupont’s decision that he would participate [at Sevens rugby] in the Olympics so it is not a surprise… Antoine represents France beyond rugby, across the world, but the team dynamic will keep growing.

“All the players were supporting him, as well,” added Galthie. “Many players were aware of the Olympics possibilities – Damian Penaud had the chance, too, but he had just joined a new club (Bordeaux) and had wanted to properly develop the relationship with them, too.”

The Six Nations opener is between France and Ireland at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome. Galthie gave a florid two-minute answer but this was the gist, in English, from our translator.

“We’re looking forward to the game. Ireland only have one loss in last two years. An amazing team, and Grand Slam champs, but we are ready for it. The game in Marseille should be fantastic and the fans down there will be ready for it, too.”

That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

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