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How Andy Farrell is looking to put his own stamp on the Ireland set-up

The 44-year-old rugby league legend has made a positive start to life as a head coach.

HE DIDN’T REALISE it back then, but the young Andy Farrell was learning a crucial lesson when Haydn Walker, his underage coach at Orrell St James’ rugby league club, would pick him up, take him to training, drop him home, and look after him at matches on the weekends.

Sitting in Portugal yesterday as Ireland’s week-long training camp at Quinta do Lago wound up, and just a few days before his first game as a head coach against Scotland in the Six Nations, Farrell reflected on what he now appreciates as Walker’s key strengths.

“Caring, being the right mentor,” said Farrell.

andy-farrell Farrell at Ireland's training base in Quinta do Lago yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Ireland boss thought back to the impact of Graeme West at Wigan too. West is a New Zealander who played for and then coached the Warriors to notable success.

“He played in the second team until he was about 45 to make sure kids like us came through and weren’t bullied along the way,” explained Farrell, who earned legendary status in rugby league before switching into union. 

“He coached Wigan for just one year. There were five trophies to go for and he won all five. Why? Because he’s a great bloke and people wanted to play for him.”

When you’re trying to get to the nub of what kind of head coach Farrell wants to be, this is where you invariably end up. He seems to value the people skills and man-management aspects of the job even more than the technical and tactical dimensions, about which he has learned vast amounts from the likes of Brendan Venter, Mark McCall, Eddie Jones, Stuart Lancaster, and Joe Schmidt.

“When I look at the best technical coaches I’ve had, I compare whether they’ve got the man-management and the emotion right and whether they can combine everything that makes a great coach,” said Farrell.

“That’s why it’s so hard to piece it all together. I suppose I have a lot of thoughts about how I want to be and we’ll see how that goes.”

The impression from Ireland’s final day in Portugal was certainly of an environment that has been freshened up by Farrell’s approach. There was a liveliness to their warm-up before training, with music playing and various stations priming the players in different basic skills.

Even their gym sessions are now slightly different to what came before.

“Our training has definitely changed a wee bit. Like from this week I’ve noticed a lot more skills focus,” explained wing Jacob Stockdale yesterday.

“We’re integrating skills into each of our gym sessions which is really exciting and quite similar to what we do at Ulster, so it’s kind of nice to get that synergy there.

“Faz has come in and brought a lot of different approaches to what Joe would have. And I think the guys have responded really well to them and are really enjoying them.”

andy-farrell Farrell will remain hands-on with training sessions. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The atmosphere has been really good and I think that’s partially down to what Faz has brought – he obviously wants to create a really inclusive environment. I think it’s also down to the players. Everyone has really bought into it and are just excited to get moving forward.”

Farrell naming his team yesterday is a new part of the Ireland set-up. Joe Schmidt previously opted to wait until the Thursday of match weeks, while also becoming greatly agitated when his teams broke early in the media.

Farrell is not interested in wasting any such energy.

“There is a little bit of paralysis through analysis,” he explained. “You can look too much into things the whole time. It doesn’t bother me about putting a team out there because that’s all I’m bothered about: our team, backing ourselves.

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“We’ve been in this game long enough now to know the advantages and disadvantages and I almost feel it’s like zero. So I’d rather just get it out there and get on with the week.

“I’ve always thought, ‘what’s the point?’ The players always know anyway, nice and early, because we’ve got to do preparation, so let’s get it out there and get on with it. It’s not going to be a shock to anyone anyway.”

Furthermore, Farrell has a revamped leadership group in his Ireland squad, one which he promises to regularly consult with around decision-making regarding tactics and squad culture.

“I like to speak to the players, I like to get a view on where they’re at. I like them to understand the direction in which we’re going. I suppose if you ask those questions and you ask them often enough, they actually will believe that it is their team and we’ve made a good start with that.” 

While Farrell will focus plenty of his time on off-field aspects of the job, as any head coach must, it will be intriguing to see how Ireland’s style evolves on it.

The head coach stressed yesterday that Ireland must start with the most basic parts of the game and build from there.

“It’s a simple enough game to win, really. You’ve got to win the set-piece battle, you’ve got to win the contact area. On the back of that, you’ve got to be smart enough, clever enough, calm enough to execute.

“I hope, for the Irish public, that we can be a team they’ll enjoy watching.”

andy-farrell Farrell at his first team naming press conference. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Attack coach Mike Catt – who Farrell worked alongside in the England set-up until they were sacked after the failed home World Cup in 2015 – is shaping up to be a key figure in this Ireland environment and the early reports are good.

“He is very enthusiastic and he likes guys to have a bit of fun,” said Stockdale of Catt. “I think that during the Six Nations moving forward, you’re probably going to see a bit of a change in our attack.

“I’m not going to give too much away now but we’re looking a bit more fluid and there is a bit more licence to play which is obviously exciting for us.”

Farrell cut a very relaxed figure yesterday as he arrived into his scheduled press conference early and happily engaged with the media before it kicked off, but he stressed that it was only the Tuesday of his first match week, with a ball yet to be kicked or passed in anger.

The 44-year-old has high hopes of helping Ireland towards more of the memorable days in which he featured as Schmidt’s assistant coach.

He also thinks back to a day when he was on the receiving end of an Irish onslaught as a player, when the English came to Croke Park in 2007 and were sent packing on a 43-13 scoreline.

“I think that was the perfect performance,” said Farrell. “I’ve spoken to the lads about what I believe Irish rugby has been all about in the past. That has certainly influenced my mind.

“That performance… they had to win, they had to perform and to do it under that much pressure in the manner they did – with forward domination, subtle play, making sure emotion didn’t get in the way of playing the game as it should be played – I thought they were outstanding that day.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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