Rugby

Andy Farrell excited by chance to pit Ireland against ‘best’ side South Africa

Ireland now turn their attention to a two-match summer tour after winning the Six Nations.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is now targeting wins against South Africa
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is now targeting wins against South Africa (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Andy Farrell is relishing a shot at the world’s best as Ireland pursue perfection after continuing their northern hemisphere domination with another Guinness Six Nations title.

Ireland turn their attention to a two-match summer tour of South Africa having retained the championship crown following last year’s Grand Slam by beating Scotland 17-13 in Dublin.

Many pundits feel Farrell’s in-form side are already Test rugby’s leading nation, an opinion understandably disputed in the Springbok camp following their back-to-back Rugby World Cup successes.

While Ireland have won their last three clashes with the Webb Ellis Cup holders, they have only once achieved that feat on South African soil – a 26-20 Cape Town triumph under Joe Schmidt in 2016.

“It doesn’t get any more difficult, does it, or any more exciting than that,” Farrell said of the July fixtures in Pretoria and Durban.

“All you want is an opportunity to put yourself out there against the best and South Africa are 100 per cent the best.

“Being able to go out there and test ourselves over there – we’ve managed to win one game over there before – will be great for our development going forward.”

Ireland have won 33 of their last 37 Tests stretching back to 2021 following a memorable St Patrick’s weekend.

Defeat by France in 2022, a pair of losses against New Zealand, including in the quarter-finals of last year’s World Cup, and last weekend’s last-gasp 23-22 reverse against England are the only blemishes on the remarkable record.

Ireland’s latest Six Nations success came following the retirements of long-serving stars Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls, while outstanding wing Mack Hansen was among those unavailable due to injury.

Head coach Farrell, whose side also have autumn appointments with the All Blacks, Argentina, Fiji and Australia on the horizon, wants to keep raising the bar.

“To be consistently at your best is probably impossible but that is what we’re going after,” said the Englishman.

“But when class players drop out of the squad, it’s always going to take time to build back up and if you can do that winning, or learning from the experiences like at Twickenham or whatever, then that’s all well and good.

“But the reality is that there’s plenty more in us and there has to be for what’s coming for the rest of the year.”

Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony feels a responsibility to keep building on the foundations laid by former team-mates such as Sexton.

Johnny Sexton led Ireland to Grand Slam glory in 2023
Johnny Sexton led Ireland to Grand Slam glory in 2023 Johnny Sexton led Ireland to Grand Slam glory in 2023 (Brian Lawless/PA)

“You always represent the past players,” said the Munster flanker, who is contemplating his own retirement.

“They’re a huge part, and even Johnny popping into the hotel last week, it’s something that we should probably make a bit more regular.

“They’ve been there for a long, long time and Johnny has been a huge part of where we are now and Earlsy is, like everyone who has put a huge amount of effort into the group.

“Every time you pull it on (Ireland’s shirt) it’s for lots of those people as well and you’d like to think that they’re proud sitting at home, the people who can’t take the field any more.”

Fly-half Jack Crowley, right, is a big part of Ireland’s future
Fly-half Jack Crowley, right, is a big part of Ireland's future Fly-half Jack Crowley, right, is a big part of Ireland’s future (Brian Lawless/PA)

Munster fly-half Jack Crowley, who has filled the void left by Sexton, and Leinster lock Joe McCarthy are part of the new generation tasked with maintaining high standards.

Farrell has urged the rookie pair to ignore the hype surrounding their standout Six Nations performances.

“Jack’s a realist,” said Farrell. “And do you know what? I’ve been hard on him.

“Jack will tell you that because it’s easy to read the press and get carried away that, ‘I’m doing it and I am doing really well’.

“But we’ve kept his feet on the ground and Joe McCarthy as well because there has to be a realisation that’s not what we’re chasing.

“We’re chasing something better than that and as long as we can continue to do that we’ll continue to grow as a group.”