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The making of Andy Farrell

Joe Schmidt may be a hard act to follow but Ireland have chosen the right man.

Andy Farrell, at the IRFU's training centre.
Andy Farrell, at the IRFU's training centre.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

ANDY FARRELL WAS feeling guilty. This was 2007 and things had headed south in more ways than one since he made his decision to leave Wigan for Saracens, a car crash damaging his back, a toe injury ruining his mood.

Day one in his new workplace hadn’t been the best. They asked him to sing a song; the rite of passage new players have to take in dressing-rooms. Money, money, money was suggested; a nod to the reports he’d signed a contract worth £700,000. Farrell politely turned down the request.

The pitch was where he’d make his point, he said to himself. Leaving his comfort zone – Wigan Warriors, rugby league – didn’t scare him. He was 30 and keen to master a different sport, but it took two years and too many injuries before the chance came along.

Match days, the moments he used to love, became a misery; he hated the feeling of being idle, watching his team-mates make their transition into warrior mode while he ‘slipped in and out of [hospitality] boxes before and after games’. “I was like one of the staff,” he said in an interview with The Guardian in 2007.

Eventually, it got too much for him. Ever since he was 16-years-old, unexpectedly becoming a father to Owen – now England’s captain – Farrell had never shied away from responsibility.

andy-farrell-and-owen-farrell Father and son pictured at this week's Six Nations launch. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

If anything, parenthood brought out the best in him, forcing him to double up on his efforts to make a better life for his new family, rising at 5.30am each morning to do an hour’s training before he cycled across Wigan for a day’s work as an apprentice joiner. Job done, he’d cycle back to Central Park for a further training session with the second-team squad.

For three years, this was his routine; changing Owen’s nappies, changing people’s perceptions about teenage boys.

Everything kept working itself out. He and Colleen became husband and wife and parents to three more children while his relationship with Wigan also blossomed. He was 16 when he made his debut for his home-town club, 21 when he became their captain. By the time Saracens called in 2005, he had won six championships, four Challenge Cups and two Man of Steel awards.

Why leave all that behind? “I needed a new challenge,” he said in a 2005 interview with The Sunday Times, not for one minute knowing the scale of the task that lay ahead. England saw him as a centre; Saracens as a flanker. But finding his natural position wasn’t anywhere near as problematic as this gnawing sense he was earning a wage he didn’t deserve.

So, after two years of injuries and inactivity, he picked up the phone and rang Nigel Wray, the Saracens owner, offering to repay some of his salary. Wray said no, acknowledging the unkind hand Farrell had been dealt. Still feeling embarrassed, Farrell called Wray again, repeating his offer a second, then a third time.

Eventually Wray was blunt, telling Farrell he had no regrets about signing him.

The reason all this matters is because of what happened next. By 2009, a number of league clubs – including Wigan – were looking to bring Farrell back north to his natural habitat in league. But he didn’t go, feeling he owed something to Saracens, where he was taking his baby coaching steps.

It is one of those sliding-door moments. Imagine if Farrell hadn’t had those injuries and if his head had remained a guilt-free zone. Would he still have stayed in union? Would his coaching talents have been missed by Stuart Lancaster’s England, Warren Gatland’s Lions and ultimately by the IRFU? We’ll never know. Then again, there’s so much we’re still trying to find out about Ireland’s new coach.

***

WARREN GATLAND GLANCED at his phone; saw Andy Farrell’s name on the screen and decided to take the call.

This was two weeks after last year’s World Cup; one man preparing for a move back home, the other for yet another move out of his comfort zone.

Ever since 2009, when he’d given up hope of beating injury, Farrell had been a No2 on the coaching paddock, trusted first by Brendan Venter, then Mark McCall, Lancaster, Gatland and finally, by Joe Schmidt.

There was success and there was pain, a World Cup failure with England in 2015, when he was accused of favouring his son in team-selections; taking an unnecessary punt on Sam Burgess; being an overbearing influence on Lancaster. “Well, that’s not fair,” George Kruis, the Saracens and England lock, told me earlier this month. “I thought Stuart and Andy worked well together.”

Kruis liked Farrell as a person as well as a coach. That’s the thing. Everyone you speak to says almost exactly the same thing about Farrell; that he’s personable, funny, driven and still the same down-to-earth lad from Freshfield Road in Wigan.

Here’s Kruis again: “He just has an ability to connect with people. When he walks into a dressing room, there’s just this natural confidence.”

And here’s Ireland’s Chris Farrell: “He’s assertive, a big personality. When he makes a decision on something, he leaves you in no doubt about what he wants.”

This is Gatland’s summation of the coach he hired for the Lions’ tours to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand four years later: “Andy is one of the most exceptional people I have ever seen in sport who can understand an environment, the mood of camps. 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.”

warren-gatland-and-andy-farrell Farrell toured under Gatland in 2013 and 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

To get an understanding why, we need go back in time again, to a story he tells about his 12-year-old self. He was after training with the Orrell St James’ U13s ahead of a cup semi-final. Cheekily, in the way 12-year-olds can be, he rolled a penny across the tiled, dressing-room floor – while the coach was speaking. As a punishment, he was dropped and despite the protestations, apologies and tears, the decision was upheld.

This was the moment he appreciated how much it meant to be part of a team. It would be 20 years, a car crash and a bad back, before he was dropped again. “As a young man, Andy had a competitiveness and a presence but also a humility that you don’t see very often in young people,” said Denis Betts, his team-mate at Wigan. “You could see he had this drive, this desire to win.”

Tellingly, the IRFU noticed it too.

***

The furore generated in England over their disastrous World Cup in 2015 didn’t concern the IRFU’s high performance director, David Nucifora. Instead, he viewed it as an opportunity, noting the consistency of England’s results in the four years prior to that tournament, figuring out that if a quartet of decent coaches were to appear on the market, then it was his job – as the IRFU’s hirer and firer – to get them on board.

Farrell was the first to be approached – a vacancy appearing on Schmidt’s coaching ticket following defence coach Les Kiss’ move to Ulster. They could scarcely believe their luck, Nucifora and Schmidt, having spoken to a number of Ireland’s 2013 Lions about Farrell’s work on that tour.

For his part, Farrell was sold on the idea of learning off Schmidt, having previously studied under Eddie Jones, McCall, Venter, Lancaster and Gatland. Coming to Ireland was like enrolling on a Masters, Schmidt his personal tutor.

He wasn’t to know it then but the players grew to appreciate this big, north of England voice booming across the training field, a counter balance to Schmidt’s obsessive manner. “Alignment; get your alignment right,” was the message he kept driving home before the All Blacks shut-out in 2018.

They worked well together; Schmidt’s forensic examination of different technical aspects of the game giving the team a deep and detailed game-plan. A grand slam was won; the Australian tour was a success; the All Blacks were conquered.

But Schmidt’s contract was running out and even though he had first refusal on a new deal, the IRFU needed to know if he was staying or leaving, especially as England had come back in for Farrell, the suggestion being that not only were they keen to have him on Jones’ backroom staff but that, when Jones left, he’d get the head coach position.

joe-schmidt-and-andy-farrell Schmidt and Farrell worked well together. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Eventually, Schmidt announced he would be the one moving on. Nucifora and the IRFU’s chief executive, Philip Browne, knew exactly who they wanted to be his replacement. They scanned the marketplace and couldn’t see a better fit.

It mattered that Farrell knew the Irish system; their player management programme, their emerging talent, the nuances of the four provinces.

When the announcement was made, almost every commentator turned to the same football analogies. Would the Schmidt/Farrell succession plan end up like a poor impersonation of the Ferguson/Moyes scenario? Or had it the potential to instead look more like Shankly/Paisley?

One person no longer in the camp drew a different comparison, though, saying if Schmidt was to be compared to anyone in football, it was Jose Mourinho. “What I mean by that is he is intense and demanding, obviously incredibly successful at winning trophies, but his methods have a shelf life,” the source said.

By last year, an increasing number of players felt more comfortable around Farrell. And it all stems back to the point Gatland made about Farrell having the intuitive knowledge to read the mood of a dressing room. “Well, I’ve been in professional sport for 28 years,” Farrell said in London this week. “I’ve seen the highs and lows; have worked for some unbelievably successful coaches but can I put my own twist on things, can I be myself?”

He used the exact same phrase in that 2005 interview with The Sunday Times: “When anyone asks me what being a leader is about, my answer is, ‘Being myself’.

 A natural leader? I’m not sure what it means. I know that it doesn’t mean just putting things across well. You’ve got to mean it. I don’t want people patting me on the back and saying, ‘Great speech’. I’m not there to make great speeches; I’m there to make my team win.”

He gets his shot at it next Saturday.

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