It may be a November series in name but so undercooked are this Irish squad that its timing is more akin to the end of September. The 38-man squad have averaged barely three games per man, with no European ties by way of upping standards for the first time, and some of the Lions frontliners are especially match shy.
By contrast, Ireland’s opening opponents on Saturday week, Japan, have just tested Australia. They’ve also been in camp for almost two months, and the history of the last World Cup underlines how primed that can make the Brave Blossoms.
Come November 13th a week later, the All Blacks will have played 11 Tests since Ireland last did so in July, culminating in three-in-a-row. Argentina, Ireland’s final opponents, will be playing their 12th Test since July, all of them on the road in a demanding year.
“The challenge is getting them up to speed but that’s the world we live in and there are no excuses from our side, no whinging from our side,” maintained Ireland head coach Andy Farrell on Thursday.
“Our Lions players, did they come back later than others? Maybe by a week or so,” he added, but that was preferable to not looking after the players and come the end of the season regretting it.
“It’s our duty to look after our players and do the right thing by them. We met in September, they knew the lie of the land. They’ve been training away in the background. They’re going to have two more weeks of intense training here and they’ll be ready to go.”
There will be a practice match behind closed doors but that would be no different from prepping for a Six Nations said Farrell, who added: “We’ve got to get good at just dealing with what’s in front of us and having no excuses.”
Apart from indicating that Johnny Sexton will win his 100th cap for Ireland against Japan, Farrell was non-committal as to whether the selection for that opening assignment will mirror that for the All Blacks game.
The key to Sexton’s longevity was, he ventured: “His love for the game, determination to keep improving, his drive is second to none. I can’t say enough about the bloke. He’s a once-in-a-generation type of player and these players don’t tend to know what makes them tick that much.
“They just love being in it, they love trying to improve, they love driving the team to get better, they love performing on the big stage. He’s all of those things thrown into one.”
Due to the pandemic, Ireland haven’t played a southern hemisphere side since the World Cup, ie under Farrell’s watch. The stand-out match in this window is clearly against the mighty All Blacks, whom Farrell described as “the world’s best team”. By way of preparation, Ireland face the other team to beat them at the last World Cup.
“Japan were outstanding against us the last time that we played them. They were certainly at their best when it mattered, in that quarter-final, so hopefully we can improve on that performance.
“All we can focus on is us being at our best, us taking our game to New Zealand, to see what we’re about, to see whether we can perform against the best in the world. We accept that challenge and we love that challenge and we’re grateful for that challenge as well.”
Two years to the day from the next World Cup final, Farrell confirmed that the countdown to France 23 starts here and declared as much to the players this week.
“We should embrace it. It is two years off, a long way off, but the road ahead is brilliant for us. The challenges of this year alone are going to stand us in great stead to learn from those experiences,” said Farrell citing these three games, the Six Nations and a three-Test series in New Zealand.