Ireland found out the hard way last year that standing still in rugby is tantamount to going backwards.
The heroics of 2018’s Grand Slam and a win over New Zealand were quickly forgotten as their Six Nations crown slipped and Joe Schmidt’s side crashed out of the Rugby World Cup at the quarter-finals.
It made way for the planned promotion of defence coach Andy Farrell to the top job, but not under the circumstances Schmidt had envisaged.
Farrell has shunned sweeping changes and will retain the same XV that beat Wales 24-14 when he faces his home country – and his son, England captain Owen – this weekend.
The family dynamic is just one interesting sub-plot at Twickenham on Sunday. Another is that Farrell Sr and his assistant, Mike Catt, were part of then-England boss Stuart Lancaster’s backroom staff but released when Eddie Jones took charge in 2015.
Andy Farrell was, for some, an ideal candidate to replace Jones had the Rugby Football Union seen through its plan of having the Australian mentor his successor during a handover period. Instead he now stands in their way.
Most significant of all, however, is whether the 44-year-old has improved Ireland enough to avenge last year’s Six Nations defeat in Dublin and a 57-15 pre-World Cup thrashing.
So far, so encouraging. Ireland have two wins from two and sit second in the table behind France on points difference only.
Unlike Les Bleus’ coach Fabien Galthie, Farrell has favoured evolution over revolution, tweaking tactics and – with 2003 World Cup-winner Catt – cultivating their attack.
Victories over Scotland and Wales showcased Schmidt-era traits such as defensive resilience inside their own 22 and a strong maul at the other end of the pitch, but there were also new qualities.
One of the most notable is the change to the forwards’ attacking framework. A 1-3-2-2 shape has seen the forwards split across the attacking line, providing more width and support while preserving their energy as backs flit around them.
This off-the-ball work allows for greater flexibility among the pack at breakdowns and, as seen against Wales, opens up space out wide for the likes of Jacob Stockdale.
Ireland’s attack became stale in the last year of Schmidt’s reign and was often defined by over-structured play and an inability to move the ball quickly from deep.
Described as “an ideas man” by Farrell, the creative solutions implemented by attack coach Catt are already paying off.
Catt’s innovative training methods – using an Aussie Rules ball, testing players’ reactions from close range and encouraging skills-based games – have been a hit, too.
Captain and fly-half Johnny Sexton, who has looked rejuvenated this campaign, said the former back had brought a “contagious energy”, while Stockdale said Catt had given him “more licence to play”.
While the team is largely the same, Farrell has made a significant personnel change with the introduction of Jordan Lamour at full-back.
The Leinster 22-year-old is great under the high ball and running at the opposition when they kick from hand, which England tend to.
It helps Ireland get back on the front foot without entering an aerial contest, while his understanding with club-mate Sexton, often acting as a second receiver – not dissimilar to Beauden Barrett for New Zealand – has added another dimension.
While it is early days, Farrell’s tenure has shown promise. Known for his emotive team talks and winning mentality, on Sunday he will hope to steer Ireland to a Triple Crown in his first three games and ever closer to a Grand Slam showdown in Paris, even if it is at the expense of his son.