After delivering a fourth Grand Slam in Irish history, Andy Farrell has vowed that his team will continue to improve as they set their sights on the World Cup in France later this year.
Saturday’s nervy win over England delivered Ireland’s fourth Six Nations title and second Grand Slam since 2014 on a day when Johnny Sexton broke Ronan O’Gara’s all-time Championship points record before lifting the trophy.
While he emphasised the need to enjoy this success in its own right, the head coach was not shying away from the team’s ambition to break Irish rugby’s glass ceiling by going deep at the World Cup and they’ll go there with huge belief after backing up their series win in New Zealand with a Grand Slam triumph.
“I said to you in New Zealand, ‘now this was the start of our World Cup year’,” Farrell said. “The most pleasing thing is that we’ve continued to be successful, you know? To find a way. Everyone was nervous about that except us.
“This is part of the journey, isn’t it? Obviously this stands on its own right, as does the New Zealand tour.
“But it’s part of the journey of us as a group going forward into a World Cup. Like I said, we’ll get two or three months pre-season training for the first time together and I expect ourselves to be better obviously because of that.
“We’ve carried on winning, is that the yardstick? I don’t know.
“We just go on the performances and the performances were pretty good in New Zealand and we’ve continued to again find a way.
“It’s never been perfect, but the game is not like that, so the mental strength of our game and large parts of our game are in a good place.
“There’s a long way for us to go for us to be at our best which is a great sign.”
The head coach was delighted with the way his team, who had the best defence and discipline of any side in the Six Nations, were able to exert control of games.
“What’s very pleasing in that regard is that we’re not a side who just kicks the leather off the ball and just goes for territory the whole time,” he said.
“We’re a side that likes to play some rugby. Territory and possession is pretty important for us and we still find a way how to generate good field position and dominate large parts of games.
“And it’s nice, isn’t it, to have that blend and to put that out on the field and believe in it.
“So our game’s in good shape but it’s nowhere near where we want it to be, so that’s a great spot to be in.”
Farrell hailed his team’s character after they battled past an England team who threw everything at them, but were reduced to 14 men shortly before half-time when Freddie Steward was controversially shown a red card for an elbow to the head of Hugo Keenan.
“We tried to throw everything into the mix that we’ve learned over the last three years and it all comes out in days like that, when things aren’t going too well for you,” Farrell said.
“I always keep on saying that the opposition is always going to have a say and they were there to spoil the party, 100 per cent, and they did really well as far as that’s concerned.
“I thought we started off pretty nervy, which obviously wasn’t part of the plan, but we kept calm and we kept on finding a way and that just sums up where the team’s at to get there in the end with a bonus-point win.
“We don’t panic and do you know what, it really doesn’t matter, it could come down to the last two minutes of a game ad we could still be behind ... we expect ourselves to be level headed and be able to play what’s in front of us for that last two minutes.
“I think we’re not far off that.”
Farrell was involved in the 2018 Grand Slam as an assistant to Joe Schmidt, but this is his first title as head coach and he hailed the squad effort in what has been an attritional campaign.
“It’s different for me,” he said.
“It’s very hard to compare because a Grand Slam’s a Grand Slam and when it comes to the final day … I mean, the memory of that one would have been Johnny’s drop goal obviously but performing at Twickenham in the snow was a fantastic day away from home because that’s tough to go and do.”
Man of the match Dan Sheehan came up with two tries in a phenomenal individual performance, but his coach revealed that he came close to missing out on the whole occasion.
“The reality is on Monday we didn’t think he was going to be able to play but he was hell-bent on giving him the time and the week was fantastic as far as preparation was concerned,” Farrell said of the hooker.
“The reality is it was a six-day turnaround and that’s what people don’t understand. It’s massive, we trained once and we believed in what we’ve done over the last eight weeks and it’s stood to us and that’s a massive credit to the coaching staff.
“One, putting the plan in place. Two, being outstanding coaches, outstanding people and three, making sure that the players believe 100 per cent in what they’re preaching and do and that’s all credit to them.”
Captain Johnny Sexton looks set to miss Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup last 16 clash against Ulster on Saturday week after damaging his groin, while Keenan and Caelan Doris will be assessed for head injuries.