Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
# the father the son...
‘I was back to being a parent, that's tougher than being a coach against your son’
It’s not long since Andy Farrell felt the emotion that’s tied up with watching his son play, but he easily shelves it once on coaching duty.

THE RIVER LEE bubbled on behind Andy Farrell, made all the stronger by the rain that had forced a late change of training plans.

Preparations for England were relocated, but unabated. And the Ireland head coach didn’t need reminding that there is a familial rivalry that must come to the boil nine days from now.

andy-farrell-and-owen-farrell Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Captain v coach. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

He has coached against his son before, obviously; having taken the reins as Ireland’s defence coach in 2016 while his first-born was already firmly in place as England’s chief playmaker. Yet a head coach and an opposing captain with matching DNA is an odd confluence of events for an international Test, there’s no getting away from it.

“I know, it’s weird, isn’t it,” said Farrell.

He agrees the situation is unusual, but he quickly adds a caveat by insisting that the professionalism shared in the genes makes it relatively ordinary for the Farrell senior and junior.

They have played together, he has coached Owen, coached to thwart Owen and the next day will be just the next day.

“I know it’s weird for you guys, but it’s certainly not weird for us because it’s never been any different. It’s as professional as it gets, because that’s all we’ve ever known with Owen being a professional and me being a professional coach. It’s never been any different.”

Steely professionalism, however, need not take hold of the entire household and leave them as purely pragmatic onlookers.

“The hardest part is certainly for Colleen. Yeah, 100%, and Owen’s sisters, and the young fella Gabriel, it’s weird for them. They’ve got unbelievably mixed emotions, I’ve no doubt, because they’re only human.

“How do they try and come to terms with it? I suppose… they hope that both sides do well. And that’s not going to happen, is it? So it’s a difficult one for them.”

Farrell is asked if it has gotten easier to set out a system designed to nullify his flesh and blood and he blithely brushes the query off, insisting he can’t remember the first occasion.

However, even the most hardened professional must, at some point, let their guard down, let their hair down while switching between metaphorical hats – coach and father.
Andy Farrell allowed himself to wear the latter a week after Ireland’s World Cup exit, when Owen Farrell was preparing to stare down the Haka.

“Now that was tough,” Andy Farrell says of his trip to the World Cup semi-final, “now I was back to being a parent again and that is tougher than being a coach against your son that is playing on the opposition.

“I actually did the whole fan-family thing that day on purpose, to get back to how it felt before all this even happened.

willi-heinz-and-owen-farrell-watch-the-haka James Crombie / INPHO The younger Farrell prepares to steer England to victory over New Zealand. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I went on the train with the all the fans, enjoyed the atmosphere before the game, understood what it meant for my wife and the kids and that was tough because the nerves were through the roof as far as that’s concerned.”

“You want your son to perform, don’t you? You speak to any parent who is watching their son play for Ireland at the weekend, your fingers are crossed, hoping it goes well.

“When you’re a coach, you don’t feel like that. You don’t hope it goes well, you’re assessing things and you’re seeing how the plan is coming together or not. So you’re busy in your mind as a coach, you’ve got a distraction.

But when you’re a parent, and I’m sure all parents would tell you the same, you’re just watching your son. You’re not watching the game as much as you would do as a coach.”

The Ireland boss, who will lead a side to Twickenham after back-to-back wins, hastens to add that his role will be ‘very different’ for the fixture on Sunday 23 February. He’ll speak with his eldest before then, just not about anything material to round 3 of the Six Nations.

“You know what, there is an element of… I am proud of the situation, I am as far as a father and him as a son.

“I am proud of how it is handled because it is one of the utmost respect, But of professionalism first and foremost.”

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Professionalism and respect will also be inherent in Farrell’s dealings with his opposite number in the week ahead. Rugby can often lean towards the self-congratulatory when its purveyors fling the word ‘respect’ around like confetti. Yet there is sincerity about how Farrell speaks about Eddie Jones.

He has worked closely with the Australian, in the latter portion of his playing career when Jones’ talents were enlisted by Saracens. But it’s clear to see in England’s performances over the past four years that Jones did not allow his methods to stand still in the intervening years.

“He is the best I’ve ever seen at keeping on reinventing himself, Eddie,” said Farrell.

rugby-union-european-challenge-cup-pool-5-saracens-v-bayonne-vicarage-road EMPICS Sport Eddie Jones working with Saracens in 2008, with Andy Farrell and, centre, Cobus Visagie. EMPICS Sport

“He is hungry to keep getting better as a coach. He doesn’t get older in my eyes, Eddie, because he keeps himself relevant.

“How he is able to be calm enough to change his mind on a few things and go with a different and fresh approach, I think is key to the longevity of his coaching career. He’s still on the upward curve which says everything really.”

Every sporting career will bring peaks and troughs on that curve. Farrell is riding high after his first two Tests as a head coach, but ahead of the biggest Test of this Six Nations, he is cognisant of how valuable the lessons of Jones’ trajectory can offer.

“You have to make sure, in all walks of life in my opinion, that if you start going on a downward curve, you’ve got to realise how quickly you’ve to catch yourself to get back on the upward curve.

andy-farrell Tommy Dickson / INPHO Farrell heads out to training in Cork yesterday. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“Those guys who, in business or as a player or a coach, feel (they are) on the slide a little bit and say ‘I’m still doing what I’ve always done and it’s worked for me in the past’ et cetera, Then you probably end up going a little bit lower than what you’ve got.

“That’s what you’ve got to be careful of and I think he does that pretty well.”

For some, there is a sense that Ireland – having overcome Scotland and taken down Wales – can catch England at a low ebb after their loss in Paris and the narrow mudbath win over Scotland. Momentum may be key in the Six Nations, but there is a fortnight either side of England v Ireland. This is the turning point.

Given how Ireland fared against the old enemy in 2019, Farrell will need it to be.

“I think it doesn’t really matter what has happened in the last two games, because they’ll see this as the competition, won’t they?

“When you lose one game in the Six Nations, everyone knows that you’re still in the competition. So they’ll see this as their main focus and we’ll expect them to be at their 100% best.

“Well we know that they’re a really difficult team to handle when they start well, and that’s been at the forefront of all their really impressive performances over the last couple of years.

“That’s certainly what they’ve done against us in those last two games, no more so than the game at the Aviva. So we’ll expect more of that.”

And expect absolutely no filial favours.


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