Andy Farrell believes a tantalizing summer tour of New Zealand is the ideal opportunity to test Ireland’s progress following their Triple Crown triumph.
The in-form Irish finished the Guinness Six Nations with silverware courtesy of Saturday’s 26-5 bonus-point victory over Scotland, albeit being denied the title by France’s Grand Slam.
Farrell’s men have won 12 of their last 13 matches and received widespread plaudits for recent performances, including an eye-catching autumn win over the All Blacks in Dublin.
Ireland have never won away to New Zealand and will face a stern examination of their credentials during three Tests in July, with the three-time world champions out to avenge November’s 29-20 loss at the Aviva Stadium.
“It’s massive,” Farrell said of the upcoming tour. “It’s the perfect opportunity that the group needs.
“We’ve talked time and time again about the lack of touring. It’s priceless.
“It looks like we’re able to take a slightly bigger group, which is great because we’ve probably had 37 lads in camp and probably five or six of them have gone away injured.
“There’s people that’s already had a sniff; some people that’s not had a game but we want to see them under pressure.
“I suppose going to New Zealand there will be no pressure like it, so it’s the perfect opportunity for us to find out more about ourselves.”
Ireland scored the most tries (24) and conceded the fewest (four) in the Six Nations but fell agonizingly short of championship glory due to their narrow round-two loss in Paris.
Scores from Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Josh Van Der Flier and replacement Conor Murray earned victory over the Scots – their fourth bonus-point success of the tournament and third in succession.
While Ireland’s high-tempo, expansive style of play has regularly grabbed the headlines, Farrell has been equally heartened by his side’s composure and willingness to scrap for success as they build towards next year’s World Cup.
“We have shown that we can play some really good rugby and scored quite a few tries,” said the head coach.
“But we have also shown in the last few weeks that we have got some grit and some nerve to stay calm and take the game right to death.
“We dusted ourselves off after the disappointment in Paris and got back on the horse and that’s all you can ask for. Three bonus-point wins on the trot is some achievement.”
Scotland enjoyed decent periods of possession in the hosts’ 22 but were often rendered toothless by stubborn defending.
That determination was epitomized in the second period when, with the score 14-5, visiting captain Stuart Hogg was denied a certain try by a heroic Hugo Keenan tackle as Scotland center Sam Johnson awaited an offload.
“There are some momentum changes and you know when things are going to go your way when you’ve got players like that pulling special moments out of the bag,” Farrell said of Keenan’s crucial intervention.
“If you look at the second half, those special players lift everyone.
“It’s part of the game that you guys (media) won’t judge as much as us but we were unbelievable in defending our own line.
“They had plenty of opportunities to score some tries and we hung unbelievably tough.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.