There is no mistaking the glint in Andy Farrell’s eye when I ask him whether he is looking forward to locking horns with Warren Gatland once again in this year’s Six Nations.
“It’s going to be brilliant,” the Ireland head coach grins of Saturday’s opener at the Principality Stadium. “Our first game, over there in Cardiff, with Gatland back. It’s like a Cup final already isn’t it? I think the game is probably ramped up by 40 per cent already. Hopefully it brings out the best in us.”
Knowing this Ireland team, there is a good chance it does.
Farrell’s Ireland are flying at the moment. An historic 2-1 series victory in New Zealand last summer, followed by an unbeaten autumn featuring gritty victories over South Africa and Australia, have left them ranked No 1 in the world.
They have been here before of course. The difference now, one senses, as opposed to four years ago when Ireland also reached No 1 in the world in a World Cup year, is their belief in themselves and what they are doing.
“Ah, we feel like we’re nowhere near there yet,” Farrell replies when I suggest he must be happy with where his squad is and the progression they have made. “But it’s nice that over the last 18 months, as you say, there’s some genuine belief there; that we’re a decent side and we can hold our own with anyone.
“It’s a good place to be, going into what, as you well know, is an unbelievably difficult competition.”
I do know. The Six Nations is in many respects the greatest rugby tournament in the world. It has a history that competitions such as the Rugby Championship or even the World Cup cannot compete with. Each game is a set-piece occasion in its own right, with its own unique history, which has built up over time.
I love the fact that Farrell has embraced that history since switching from league all those years ago. He has brought so much to union.
I confess I’ve always been a big fan of Farrell’s. As a Leeds boy born and bred, I played rugby league myself up to the age of 11. I have always loved the game - its honesty, its integrity, its working class roots. It is a subject I’m keen to bring up with Farrell.
Why, I ask him, does he think so many league players have ended up successful coaches in union? Many of them Wiganers such as himself, or Shaun Edwards or Paul Stridgeon.
“Mike Forshaw, too,” Farrell chips in, referring to Wales’ new defence coach. “He’s one of my best mates. That’s a great bit of work there from Gatland getting him in because he’s grown up in the same type of environment. You’re right, though, I don’t think it's a coincidence.”
What is it then? I ask him about the great Wigan teams of the Nineties, which I followed closely. I still consider that 1994/95 vintage to be the most complete rugby league side ever.
“I think it's just the pressure of being a Wiganer,” Farrell replies. “Growing up there, it’s every kid's dream to play for Wigan. Rugby's a religion there. There are a hell of a lot of good amateur clubs who are competing week in week out, you know…and they're competing to try and get their sons to play in a team that they've dreamt of competing in.
“If you look at Super League now, and over the last 10-15 years, there’s not enough room for Wiganers to be just at Wigan, you know? So they’re spread out everywhere. There has to be something about the culture, the rugby and how much it means to people in the town.”
Culture. It’s clearly a very important word in Farrell’s philosophy. And it’s clear to see what he has brought to Ireland, first as assistant to Joe Schmidt and now as head coach in his own right.
Of course, Farrell himself plays down his personal impact, crediting David Nucifora at the IRFU, the “joined-up provincial system”, and his fellow coaches. “John Fogarty and Paul [O’Connell] have done a fabulous job with our forwards,” he says. “And Simon Easterby is doing a brilliant job with our defence. And Mike Catt and myself tinker around with the attack… we’ve got good people, you know.
“But on top of that, our leaders in the dressing room are really taking ownership now. They're not just turning up for work and waiting to be told what to do. They are getting ahead of the game, which is great. And that transfers to the field as well.”
'You’re only ever as good as your next game'
This, ultimately, is the key to Ireland’s current success. The culture is clearly extremely positive. There is a growth mindset, with the players fully invested in the outcome.
Where England are starting again under a new coach in Steve Borthwick, and Gatland is getting his feet back under the table at Wales, Ireland have continuity. Not only has their game developed to a point where they are adding ever more complex detail to stable foundations, increasingly they have real competition for places, too. Farrell and Nucifora have really focused on expanding the pool of players available, playing A team games in New Zealand as well as Tests, and taking an ‘Emerging Ireland’ tour to South Africa last year.
“We’ve been working now for three years and I think we've looked at 80 players or something like that,” Farrell says. “84 players with Emerging Ireland - I think we've had 30-odd new [Test] caps through my time in charge. And yes I think us blooding a few players has allowed us to get in a good position, you know, in terms of competition for places.”
Farrell is not getting ahead of himself though. Far from it. After a stellar 2018, Ireland failed to progress in 2019 and paid the price. It is why he was so quick to say at the start of our chat that Ireland are not the finished article. He knows Ireland need to continue to evolve, to grow, or else they will stagnate.
“Backing it up and not being afraid of success and understanding where your game is and how you can keep on improving… that’s the key,” he says. “But yes, I do think we’re in a much better place now in terms of being able to adapt and roll with the punches and just try to be ourselves. Because that's what matters ultimately. It's about us being ourselves.”
For me Farrell is the outstanding contender for Lions head coach in 2025. He heads a group of outstanding young coaches we have in the game at present including Stuart Lancaster. I finish by asking him about this, and to my delight, he does not sound averse to the idea. “Rugby’s all about memories. And those two tours I went on in 2013 and 2017 are right up there,” he says, adding that the Lions are still as relevant as ever. “100 per cent playing for the Lions is every player’s dream, and should be every coach’s dream as well.”
The next Lions coach? Absolutely.
“You’re only ever as good as your next game, though,” he adds, smiling. “And Wales on Saturday is a huge one. We cannot afford to look further down the road than that. Everyone’s after us now. Hopefully we can deal with that, and make ourselves better because of it.”
If they win in Cardiff my money is on Ireland finishing top of this year's Championship.