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A different mentality: Why Warren Gatland is still keeping the door open for Andy Farrell

The Ireland head coach made a lasting impression on the 2013 and 2017 Lions tours.

Gatland  Farrell

WARREN GATLAND KNEW it was a gamble, but something had to change. He was preparing to tackle his first British and Irish Lions tour as head coach, the biggest job of his life, but had inherited damaged goods. It was fast approaching 16 years since the Lions had last won a tour. 

The questions being asked were ugly ones – What value is a tour if the touring team never wins?

In 2001, Graham Henry led the Lions to Australia, losing the Test series 2-1. Clive Woodward watched his squad go down 3-0 against the All Blacks in 2005. Four years later, Ian McGeechan’s Lions were beaten 2-1 by South Africa, the series already lost by the time they got the better of a much-changed Springbok team in the third Test. That 2009 trip ended with Springbok captain John Smit awkwardly insisting “there should never, ever be a last Lions tour,” after the Springboks coaches’ decision to make 10 changes for the final Test raised questions about the value of the series closer.

Gatland looked at those tours and realised he needed to try something, or more accurately, someone, different if they were going to play for more than just pride in Australia. 

Never a man to shy away from a hard call, he trusted his gut. After stewing over ‘the hardest decision of his life’, Gatland picked up the phone to his long-time friend and coaching assistant, Shaun Edwards, to inform him his services would not be required in Australia.

Instead, Gatland would go with the unknown.

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Andy Farrell’s coaching CV was relatively thin when Gatland got in touch. The former rugby league star had spent a couple of years in various coaching roles with Saracens, where he quickly made a name for himself on the other side of the touchline, sufficiently impressing Stuart Lancaster to add him to his England coaching ticket in 2012.

By the end of the year, he was buttoning up his new red polo shirt to pose for photographs among the grand surroundings of Edinburgh’s Hopetoun House.

Smiling for the cameras alongside Rob Howley, Graham Rowntree and Neil Jenkins, Farrell was comfortably the least experienced coach in the group.

“I’ve not worked with Andy so it’s a little bit of a selfish appointment because I’ve heard so much positive about Andy from players and other coaches,” Gatland told reporters that day.

“It helps me and stimulates me, because I’ve not worked with him and I think it’s a positive in terms of freshening up the coaching team as well.

“People who have been involved with him talk about his ability to motivate people to want to play for him.”

andy-farrell-warren-gatland-and-graham-rowntree Farrell pictured on the day Warren Gatland announced his coaching team for the 2013 Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That ability to motivate and inspire was an area of expertise Farrell had been honing for years in dressing rooms all over the UK, most of them much harsher and colder than the state of the art facilities available to the Lions.

Across 13 years of playing league with Wigan and the best part of a decade in high-performing rugby union set-ups, Farrell had learned a thing or two about how to deal with different personalities and push them towards a common goal.

On his first day of Lions media duties, it was telling that that aspect of his role was top of the agenda.

“The difference between international football and club football is you have to get a group together as quick as possible,” Farrell explained.

I’ve been fortunate to be involved with quite a few of those in a short space of time. I’ve had quite a few experiences of bringing teams together and that is the biggest challenge of this gig really. We have to bring world-class players together as fast as possible, get the camaraderie right from day one and try to get everyone on the same page. I’ve been through quite a lot of that.” 

In terms of his defensive duties Farrell’s brief was clear – oversee a plan that would shackle the free-flowing Wallabies. His formula for success was to be based on intensity and workrate. The Lions would be disciplined but ferocious in defence, with a clear focus on linespeed.

As the Lions set up camp in Hong Kong before moving on to Australia, Farrell got to work. 

The early signs were promising. The Lions, working under Farrell’s new defensive system, won five of their six warm-up games, conceding just 68 points.

assistant-coach-andy-farrell-talks-to-the-team Farrell talks to the Lions squad during the 2013 tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Crucially, while the players enjoyed Farrell’s approach on the training pitch, they also felt comfortable around him away from the hard work. For the squad, many of whom hadn’t worked with Farrell before, they appreciated his more easy-going, personable side – a welcome addition in any touring squad.

The Lions won the fiercely contested first Test in Australia 21-23, the hosts losing three players to injury while the tourists missed just seven of their 125 tackles as a squad. However, with the Wallabies leaving 14 points behind in missed kicks and the Lions struggling at times at the breakdown, nobody was getting carried away.

Seven days later the Lions received plenty of praise for their defensive efforts despite losing the second Test by a point in Melbourne.

That performance teed up the defining moment of Farrell’s time with the squad in Australia, with his ‘Hurt Arena’ speech ahead of the third Test quickly entering Lions folklore.

Farrell’s passionate, emotive address to the squad was a dream for that year’s Lions documentary crew, but also struck a real chord with the players. Before footage of the speech had been pumped out to the masses, the victorious Lions hinted at the power of Farrell’s message after an inspired performance in Sydney clinched the series, the Lions sticking 41 points on their humbled hosts.

A 27-year-old Johnny Sexton scored the decisive try to secure the series win on his first Lions tour.

“We were all fired up,” Sexton told reporters after the game. “Andy Farrell spoke brilliantly on Friday about having a different type of mentality.

andy-farrell Farrell speaks to the squad ahead of the third Test in Australia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We are Lions, we have to be a step above what we expect at international level, and the lads really produced that. We were outstanding in defence and outstanding up front.

“We maybe wanted it a bit too much when we got to 15-9 ahead last week and went into our shells a bit and wished the clock away… This time, though, we grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and went for it.”

When the behind the scenes tour footage was released, Farrell’s role in the lead-up to that third Test stole the show.

The cameras closed in on Farrell as he spoke to the squad, the group hanging on his every word as Gatland watched on in the background.

“On D, we cannot afford to allow our emotional energy to dip whatsoever. You know why? Because there is no tomorrow,” Farrell said, repeating the message for emphasis.

“We are taking them boys to the fucking hurt arena this weekend, because our mentality is going to be a different mentality than what the British Lions teams have had over the last 16 years, right? A different mentality.”

Gatland’s gamble had paid off, the Lions winning a first series since 1997.

Four years later it was no surprise to see Farrell involved again, the stain of England’s 2015 World Cup campaign damaging his reputation only in the eyes of some sections of the English media.

By this stage he was working under the guidance of Joe Schmidt, having joined the Ireland set-up shortly after the RFU handed Lancaster and his coaching team their P45s.

The Ireland players who had worked with Farrell on that 2013 Lions tour only had good things to report when the IRFU’s performance director, David Nucifora, tested the waters.

In Ireland camps, Farrell would lighten the mood ahead of his video sessions by ‘analysing’ advertisements the players had been involved in, running commentary over a Rob Kearney commercial for Newbridge or a trick-shot compilation John Cooney had starred in for a car dealership.

During his time working as a pundit with Virgin Media, Kearney, a man who saw his international career ended by Farrell, explained what Farrell brings to a squad environment. 

“He’s someone who connects with the players on a different sort of level,” Kearney said. “He’s almost one of the lads, a little bit.”

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These elements of Farrell’s personality are just as important to Gatland as his coaching qualities.

On the 2017 tour to New Zealand, Farrell again played an instrumental role, tapping into his rugby league ‘Man of Steel’ persona in the lead-up to bruising series against the All Blacks.

“I think we’re going to have to take ourselves to a place that individually we’ve not been to before,” Farrell said as the series opener approached.

andy-farrell-celebrates-winning-with-his-son-gabriel-jonathan-sexton-and-conor-murray Johnny Sexton, Andy Farrell and Conor Murray on the 2017 Lions tour. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Trailing 13-8 at half-time of the first Test in Auckland, a ruthless second-half performance saw the All Blacks power to a 30-15 win.

In Wellington one week later, an inspired Lions performance saw New Zealand fall to a first home defeat in eight years, with the Lions dominating the breakdown and constantly forcing the All Blacks to make decisions under intense pressure. At that point, Farrell had been involved in three of the All Blacks’ last five defeats.

The series closed with a gripping 15-15 draw in Auckland, and once again Farrell’s defensive work was praised as the Lions held the All Blacks to their lowest score in three years.

No matter what happened in the years between, he was always going to feature prominently in Gatland’s thinking for this summer’s tour to South Africa.

This year, more than any, Gatland has been wary of selecting ‘the right people’ for a tour which will see the Lions squad severely restricted in terms of what they can do outside of training hours. 

In Farrell he sees a coach who has a proven record of success in terms of producing results with the Lions, as well as someone who can help unify a squad and keep morale, and motivation, high.

Shortly after the 2019 World Cup, this writer asked the recently-retired Rory Best what makes Farrell so popular with players.

“His presentation skills are incredible,” Best explained. “He’s a big character, a fun person to be around.”

Best separately told The Times, “Whenever he asks you to do something he has so much passion about it… When he talks about any aspect of the game, he will make you want to buy into it.”

Here’s Iain Henderson on the same topic, speaking during the early weeks of Farrell’s reign as Ireland head coach.

“There is a different mentality around the place, there is a different mentality in meetings, there is a different relationship between players and coaches. Everything that is done is done in a real positive manner to ensure that we are getting the best out of each other.”

In an interview with the Sunday Business Post, Gatland himself was asked to describe what Farrell offers a squad.

“Andy is one of the most exceptional people I have seen in sport who can understand an environment, the mood of camps,” Gatland enthused.

“That is not a skill you learn. It’s something innate. And it comes from his life experiences, being captain of a hard-nosed group of men for club and country at 21, playing at an elite level all his adult life. He just loves being out there on the training pitch.”

That’s why less than a month out from the opening Test against the Springboks, and with the Lions summer tour already up and running, Gatland is still keeping a spot on his coaching team free.

There’s always space for a different mentality. 

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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