Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
# stepping up
IRFU back Andy Farrell for daunting task of succeeding Joe Schmidt
Ireland’s current defence coach will step up to the top job next year.

THE FIRST THING many players mention about Andy Farrell is the physical condition he’s in.

The 43-year-old doesn’t appear to have lost his appetite for getting into the gym since retiring from playing and is certainly an imposing presence in front of Ireland’s players and whatever setting he finds himself in.

But, clearly, there is much more to Farrell than his 6ft 4ins stature.

Andy Farrell ahead of the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Farrell has been a big influence for Ireland since 2016. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

He has been repeatedly praised by Ireland’s players for his leadership of their defence since joining Joe Schmidt’s coaching team in 2016, playing an integral role in the Irish success since.

In the wake of Ireland’s second win over the All Blacks two weekends ago, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen underlined how difficult it is to play against Farrell’s defences.

Indeed, Farrell has been involved in several wins against the All Blacks – with England in 2012, Ireland in 2016, the Lions in 2017 and Ireland again this year.

Those achievements rank high on his coaching CV, which doesn’t include a head coach role yet. That will change after next year’s World Cup, however, with Farrell confirmed as Joe Schmidt’s successor – with his contract extended to include the 2023 World Cup.

Is there risk involved? Of course. Farrell has never been a permanent boss before and will step into the lead role in charge of one of the best teams in world rugby.

He will have a wealth of resources at his disposal as the IRFU’s system continues to produce, retain and manage excellent players.

But there will be intense pressure on Farrell, even more so if Schmidt can finish out his reign with further success in next year’s Six Nations and Rugby World Cup.

If Schmidt is an Alex Ferguson-esque figure for Irish rugby, then Farrell must hope not to be its David Moyes. 

Farrell made his name as a player in rugby league, becoming a legend in the sport with his hometown club Wigan, England and Great Britain, twice winning the prestigious Man of Steel award.

Andy Farrell tackled by Ronan O'Gara Billy Stickland / INPHO Farrell played league and union for England. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell switched into rugby union in the latter stages of his playing career, playing for Saracens and winning eight England caps, but never quite convincing in the 15-man code.

Having retired in 2009, he moved directly into coaching with Saracens under Irishman Mark McCall, helping the club to a Premiership title in his first season and rapidly earning a reputation as an excellent defence coach.

With the likes of Shaun Edwards and Les Kiss having made influential transitions from playing league into coaching union defences – bringing with them aggressive line speed and destructive contact skills – Farrell was following a partially worn road.

Having progressed rapidly with Saracens and moved into the role of ‘first team coach’ under McCall, Farrell was brought into England’s set-up under Stuart Lancaster ahead of the 2012 Six Nations, impressing enough to eventually earn a three-year contract as defence coach.

In 2013, Farrell toured with the Lions in the same role, greatly impressing Irish players such as Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray.

His appearances in the Lions’ behind-the-scenes documentary helped to build Farrell’s public reputation too.

“We are taking them to the hurt arena,” Farrell implores his players in one scene.

“On D, we cannot afford to allow our emotional energy to dip whatsoever. Fucking destroy and enjoy.”

Away from those motivational messages, Farrell’s detailed technical coaching left a positive impression on the Irish players as the Lions beat Australia in that summer’s series.

Andy Farrell Dan Sheridan / INPHO Farrell was back with the Lions last year in New Zealand. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

While England were consistently competitive under Lancaster and Farrell, they never quite managed to get over the last hurdle and win silverware, while a disappointing home World Cup in 2015 signalled the end.

Farrell faced intense criticism from the English media in the wake of England’s pool-stage exit, with the selection of former rugby league player Sam Burgess being pinned on him, while it was also suggested he had become too influential in the coaching group, his role having extended to include some aspects of England’s attack.

Some of the criticism was unfounded, but Farrell and his fellow England coaches were never going to survive. With Eddie Jones coming in to take over after Lancaster was sacked, Farrell and the other assistants were also moved on.

The expectation was that Farrell would return to the club game in England but the IRFU didn’t delay in swooping for a man they felt had been discarded far too hastily, securing the Englishman as an assistant coach to Schmidt in early 2016.

Several of Schmidt’s senior players had put in a good word about Farrell’s work on the 2013 Lions tour.

Farrell was unable to immediately join Ireland, his previous RFU contract forcing him to take ‘gardening leave’ but he did join Anthony Foley’s Munster as a consultant in the interim, before linking up with Ireland for the tour of South Africa two summers ago.

Farrell has been a big voice in the environment since, capable of challenging even someone as powerful as Schmidt, and swiftly commanding respect from the players as he built a rapport with them. 

Farrell has brought increased linespeed to Ireland’s defence, with the frontline regularly being filled with defenders, leaving the likes of Kearney to cover wide spaces in the backfield.

He has also convinced Ireland’s players of his value with a Schmidt-esque attention to detail, albeit focused specifically on the defensive side of the game. Many in this Ireland squad believe Farrell has made them better individual defenders and a far more effective collective defensive unit.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt with Andy Farrell Colm O'Neill / INPHO Farrell has been learning from one of the best head coaches in the game. Colm O'Neill / INPHO / INPHO

Having helped Ireland to a Grand Slam, a first-ever win against the Springboks on South African soil [much of which was played with 14 men], a series success in Australia, and two wins against the All Blacks, Farrell still has an important role to play as defence coach over the coming 11 months.

Next year’s Six Nations and World Cup provide Schmidt with the opportunity to finish on a high, with Farrell’s defence sure to be important.

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Thereafter, the Englishman clearly has the personality to rise to the challenge of succeeding Schmidt.

From the IRFU’s point of view, there is sense in appointing from within. Farrell knows the Ireland set-up intimately at this stage, as well as having a strong understanding of how the provincial and development programmes work in this country.

He has a relationship with key players in the Ireland squad, as well as the next generation of senior figures in the group, with the hope being that he can oversee what IRFU performance director David Nucifora called “a seamless transition.”

There is obviously world-class coaching talent elsewhere in the coaching world and the Ireland job is an attractive one, but the IRFU feels Farrell is the perfect successor to Schmidt.

Current forwards coach Simon Easterby and skills and kicking coach Richie Murphy will continue as assistant coaches post-World Cup and are contracted until June 2020, although the highly-regarded scrum specialist Greg Feek will leave along with Schmidt.

While there are unlikely to be any further announcements from the IRFU in the coming weeks, it seems certain that Farrell will look to add to his own support team when the time comes to step up as head coach.

An innovative attack coach would make sense, particularly given how superb Schmidt is in that area of the game – capable of picking out opposition shortcomings before creatively and ruthlessly setting his players up to exploit them. 

inpho_01233919 James Crombie / INPHO Farrell is a highly-regarded motivator. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

We simply don’t have any grasp of Farrell’s philosophy around attack, given that all of his coaching roles so far have focused mainly on the defensive side of the game.

Nor do we know how he will handle the additional responsibility of being the head coach. He has an excellent relationship with Ireland’s players now, but the nature of that connection will likely change. 

While an assistant coach is almost like a peer to the players, maintaining a friendliness and approachability, the head coach is often more distant, particularly given that they are responsible for picking and dropping players.

In those senses, there is an element of the unknown with the appointment of Farrell. 

That said, he has been learning from one of the very best over the last two-and-a-half years and many of Schmidt’s strengths are sure to have rubbed off on Farrell.

The IRFU’s faith in their man has been underlined by extending Farrell’s contract through to the 2023 World Cup.

An impressive character, Farrell will have confidence that he can step up to what looks like a daunting task. 

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