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Lessons from the past and 'kickings' to come, Farrell ready for all that comes with Ireland job

‘I can only be myself,’ says Farrell. He is keen on putting his own stamp on his first major head coaching role.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated Dec 28th 2019, 12:00 PM

THE OTHER DOTING parents surrounding the Old Belvedere U8s sometimes cast a wary sideways eye to the imposing upright figure nearby.

Perhaps they are applauding their wee boy’s burst or tackle and want to make sure somebody else has spotted it. Or maybe they have just issued instructions towards the field and are seeking an approving nod.

Andy Farrell is well able to restrain himself from involving his voice and sway on the matches his son Gabriel plays in down Ailesbury Road.

He is well used to people looking to him for a little guidance. However, these days, he’s not so used to people characterising him as a Rugby League convert and he balks a little in the IRFU’s impressive Abbottstown facility when a question refers to his former code.

“Am I still…” he begins, before double-checking his CV, “I’ve never been a Rugby League coach.”

Not a coach, but something of an iconic player through 370 appearances for Wigan, most of which came as captain after he was named skipper aged just 21.

Approaching the 15th anniversary of his move across codes and now aged 44, Farrell is fulfilling a long-held ambition as he slips into the Ireland hot-seat. He has held the title ‘head coach’ before, but in relatively fluid Saracens structure with Mark McCall above him as director of rugby while Brendan Venter still cast a shadow as a technical director.

Coaching an international side is a big step whatever way you slice it.

“I’ve always wanted to be a coach, no matter what code that would be in,” says the Wigan native in his first media duty since taking over from Joe Schmidt.

Probably from when I was captain at a young age, because I knew my point of difference would have been galvanising the team.”

The more-rounded work of coaching and managing a squad comes less naturally to most people. Farrell recalls that his efforts to mould his coaching capabilities began at the age of 19. That apprenticeship continued on through his playing days in League, Union and then beyond playing days. Of course, take aspects from everyone he has worked with. That’s what experience is. And he is keen to soak in more.

“I’d spend my time speaking as many people as I possible can – not just in coaching, in business and in life, people that I meet in the gym – and try and get my learnings from that.

“Every book I would read, every podcast I would have. It’s all about learning and getting better for this profession.”

With all that information coming in, though, Farrell remains acutely aware of the need to rise above the swathes of detail so that he doesn’t lose sight of his own skill-set and his ability to galvanise a group.

Farrell has been a popular addition to Ireland’s coaching ticket since his arrival in 2016. His no-nonsense, gruff and direct demeanour strikes to the core of what players want to deliver on the field. Farrell hopes he won’t have to change how he deals with people just because he has changed office.

When you put everything together from all these coaches that you’ve had, and I’ve had plenty over time, you’ve also got to put you’re own ‘Andy Farrell stamp’ into that and that’s my personality and that’s how I am.

“That’s how I see things evolving and that’s what I want to see come through. I want to be myself, 100% I want to be myself.”

He adds: “I can only be myself. I want to be upfront with you guys and the players. I’m not clever enough to lie to myself. I want to be honest and be upfront. I can only be myself. As far as how I’m going to run this gig, I’ve been in professional sport for most of my life, since I was 16.”

Although Farrell’s predecessors as Ireland head coach had their own rugby-playing credentials, they built a wealth of coaching experience while the game was still an amateur sport. Farrell, albeit in a different code, was a professional player and so progressed along a different path. No OE as Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland sought out, no stint as a teacher as Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney and no free weekend mornings to grab a whistle and coach his eldest kid at grassroots level.

“Obviously, we were young enough (Farrell and wife Colleen, when Owen was born), I suppose privileged enough that Owen could be able to see my career.

“I was playing, more than anything, through it. So I was rushing through the training ground to get to his games, but Owen’s had some coaches along the way. I’ve had no need to step in.

“My boy now, Gabriel, who is eight, he’s at Old Belvedere and I just stand there on the sideline and the parents are coaching there. They turn a eye to me every now and again, and I just laugh.

“I enjoy watching parents getting stuck in. I would never interfere. If anyone asked me for some advice , gladly. But I wouldn’t want to be a parent that’s interfering from the sideline.”

He won’t be quite so laissez-faire when it comes to coaching Ireland as the Six Nations kicks off in just five weeks.

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He is ready for all that comes with the heat of a Championship. Post-World Cup there may have been a will from all corners to see Ireland experiment to improve their prospects in 2023, but once those long-standing rivalries come down for decision in the Spring all talk of four-year plans and building quickly fades to the back of most peoples’ consciousness.

The job ahead of him looks tougher now than when he was announced as Joe Schmidt’s successor, with Ireland sliding from first to fifth in the world rankings over the course of two months in 2019.

His first squad has already signalled change afoot. Farrell is willing to play bad cop a little more if a cull – or even just a rotation or a test run – is needed.

“It’s the job. If I’m trying to shy away from that, I’m the wrong man really. Joe handled that brilliantly. That’s why he’s so successful.

“I’ve said to the lads that I want an honest environment. I don’t want to give them false information, false hope. I want it to be honest. Why? Because I want them to be able to trust me. So, yeah forming relationships is going to be key for that.”

And when relationships become frayed, when defeats bring pressure and barbs from all corners?

“I have had plenty of kickings, honestly.

“I have been involved in professional sport long enough to know what a kicking is and what really matters. I’m big enough and ugly enough to be able take that as well.”

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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