Andy Farrell in London today. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Up and Running

The Lions have their leading man in Farrell but what about Ireland?

Lions tours aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but they remain a big beast in rugby.

AS WE SAT there on the 15th floor of a high-rise building in the offices of a London insurance firm, listening to Andy Farrell talking about a huge honour in his career, we found ourselves thinking about what the Lions really means these days.

Players tell you that they still see it as the pinnacle to get selected as a British and Irish Lion, an exclusive club only open to four nations. There’s an undoubtedly rich history that still has allure. Some of rugby’s great moments have come during Lions tours. Many fans count a Lions trip as a lifelong highlight.

Other fans say it’s an archaic institution that just leaves their nation’s players fatigued. They see the Lions as the epitome of rugby’s worst smug, insular, upper-class, self-aggrandizing tendencies.

There’s no doubt that the Lions in its current guise is a money-making machine. Even after the 2021 tour of South Africa when Covid was a huge disruption, fans weren’t able to travel, and the stadiums were empty, the company that runs the Lions was still able to report a profit of nearly €10 million.

For the four unions who own the Lions – Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland – this is important money.

We heard today that the 2021 Lions tour also got record ‘engagement’ but fittingly for today’s world, that was all online. Even more fittingly, the online atmosphere verged into nastiness and bitterness that seemed to spill into the matchdays too.

Understandably, it was all rather soulless without the fans. It wasn’t a real ‘tour’ given that the Lions and Springboks themselves were locked down and the usual ‘Sea of Red’ couldn’t swarm into South Africa. The Springboks pulled off a fine series success, no doubt, but it’s a Lions trip that won’t create much nostalgia.

Next year is going to be different. The 2025 jaunt to Australia promises to be a proper carnival. With all the expats Down Under – hordes of Irish among them – set to be joined by a huge swathe of visitors, the party will restart. Perth, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney – the craic will definitely be 90.

lynn-carey-watches-the-press-conference A worker in at the Howden offices watches today's press conference. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The Lions expect a record number of fans to travel, with somewhere in the region of 12,000 people already having registered interest in the official travel packages. So the appetite is there among many rugby fans even if others are cold to the Lions. And those who don’t support it as thoroughly will be unable to resist tuning in when it kicks off. 

Things took a step up today with the revelation of Farrell as the head coach in London. As he introduced the Wigan native, insurance big wig David Howden, the founder of Lions sponsor Howden, joked about “the great surprise of the day” as one of rugby’s worst-kept secrets was officially confirmed.

In a room packed with media, Ireland, England, and Wales were well represented, but there was a conspicuous lack of Scottish guests. Much like the actual Lions squads, says you.

Farrell was praised for his rare ability to bring a group of players together, as well as nailing the technical and tactical elements of the game, all of which are important given how little time Lions coaches have to cook up a winning team.

His history with the Lions is important but Farrell isn’t promising any repeats of his famous motivational speeches as a defence coach on previous tours that included phrases like “take them to the hurt arena” and “f**king destroy and enjoy.”

“I’ve probably grown up a little bit since then, I’m not as dramatic,” said Farrell, who was on the 2013 and 2017 tours. “There won’t be any film star roles from me, just being myself and making sure that the team comes first.”

The Aussies, currently ranked ninth in the world and coming off a first-ever pool-stage exit at the World Cup, will come good, Farrell assured us. He battled with some league legends Down Under in his playing days and has respect for the Australian sporting psyche.

They need a head coach – here’s hoping it’s Joe Schmidt – but Farrell pointed to Ireland’s narrow November 2022 win over the Wallabies in Dublin to underline that the Aussies have plenty of talent.

Throughout the afternoon, the IRFU were thanked profusely on several occasions. Farrell will still be in charge of Ireland for what will be a tough November 2024, when at least two of New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia will visit Dublin, but he will miss the 2025 Six Nations and the summer tour that year.

andy-farrell Andy Farrell spoke of the honour of being Lions boss. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Some Irish fans would prefer him to stay and keep doing his job with Ireland, but the IRFU have strongly backed him to take this sabbatical to lead the Lions, which is one of their other interests.

It remains to be seen who Farrell picks as his Lions assistant coaches and whether any of them come from his Ireland staff, but the current expectation is that defence coach Simon Easterby will take over Farrell’s Ireland role on an interim basis when he goes on Lions duty in December 2024.

Leinster’s Andrew Goodman will have joined as backs coach at that stage, while scrum coach John Fogarty is contracted until 2025, as is forwards coach Paul O’Connell, who has obvious Lions history as a player.

Whoever is still with Ireland, Farrell is convinced they will keep the show on the road while he’s away.

“They certainly will,” said Farrell. “We’ve got fantastic people there and experienced coaches who will work with the players to keep the journey going.”

It will be interesting how many of his Ireland players Farrell selects for the Lions. And to see who narrowly misses out – a strange challenge for a coach who is then heading back for another two seasons in charge of Ireland.

Players want the honour, thrill, and financial reward of touring but some fans worry about the long-term effect Lions trips can have on them. We have seen countless examples of players struggling for form and fitness in the wake of being Lions.

But Farrell is in no doubt about what being a Lion does for the players.

“The learnings, you couldn’t write it,” said Farrell. “You would have to ask them, but what I’ve observed, it’s so vast.

“The confidence they get in watching each other. Don’t forget these guys are the best of the best, but they’re watching each other like a hawk. Trying to learn off each other on a daily basis. Everyone’s staring at each other’s breakfast for a start! You know, how they prepare for training and deal with nerves before a game.

“They see that the other players are human and how they deal with the same nerves they face. The learning is something you can’t replicate anywhere else.”

So the Lions beast is up and rumbling again.

Here’s to the next 15 months or so of debating who should and who shouldn’t travel to Australia in 2025.

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