Thursday 27 April 2017

Farrell eyes Ireland spot ahead of Munster switch

Chris Farrell says Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has kept a close eye on his progress during his time with Grenoble Picture: Getty
Chris Farrell says Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has kept a close eye on his progress during his time with Grenoble Picture: Getty
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Three years ago, when Chris Farrell packed his bags and headed for Grenoble, he did so with the intention of returning home sooner rather than later, but as time went on, the allure of living in the shadow of the stunning French Alps caught hold of him.

Life in France nowadays is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind in Belfast but after a spate of injuries, it was time for a fresh start.

Farrell has been a colossus in midfield during his time with Bernard Jackman's Grenoble but as his contract neared its end, the club realised that it was going to be difficult to keep hold of him.

The offers have not been in short supply and while Farrell did toy with the idea of remaining in France, when Munster came calling, it was an opportunity that was simply too good to pass up.

In truth, the deal was done as early as last year and when he met Rassie Erasmus for the first time; mere formalities remained as Farrell gets set to begin a new chapter in Limerick next season.

Quality

It's easy to forget that the powerful former Ulster centre - 6ft 4in, and almost 17 stone - is still only 23 but Joe Schmidt is certainly aware of his tender age, and indeed his quality.

Farrell's move to Munster ticks a lot of boxes but the most important one in his eyes is that it puts him firmly back in the frame for Ireland selection.

A former U-20 international, Farrell has played in midfield alongside JJ Hanrahan and was captained by Niall Scannell at age-grade level.

Even with Munster set to lose either Francis Saili or Jaco Taute at the end of the season, Farrell will still face plenty of competition but he has never lacked the stomach for the fight.

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All the while he has been exploring his options, Schmidt's influence has played a major role in luring Farrell back to these shores and he admits that "it was definitely a deciding factor".

"I think Joe Schmidt is in contact with everyone who is Irish-qualified and is playing outside of Ireland," Farrell says.

"Even when I was 21 and made the decision to come to Grenoble, I hadn't played a game in France before Joe Schmidt was on the phone to me for a really informal chat to see how things were going and what my plans and goals were for the future.

"Since then he has always been in contact. I did meet him when I was considering coming back to Ireland. His way of dealing with players is very good.

"Whenever I have spoken with him, it's been nice to have someone chat to you informally about how things were going. It was definitely a deciding factor in me coming home.

"At the start of the season, he went to the lengths of actually watching games and picking parts of my game and giving me a few tips.

"He sent me messages with different scenarios that have happened in games that he had recalled from watching and saying 'You could have done this here, you have done well here'.

"To have someone who is the international coach take time out to look at your own game definitely helped.

"It's something that's probably lacking in France. Going back into an environment where you'll get that from the domestic coaches in Munster as well is definitely attractive."

As Ian Madigan desperately seeks to cut short his French sojourn, Farrell's story proves that successful paths can indeed be forged in a demanding league.

Incidentally, Bordeaux were one of the clubs that Farrell spoke with before deciding on Munster. He was deterred by the same reasons that Madigan has spoken publicly about.

"I know a bit about Bordeaux - I spoke with them when I knew I was out of contract," Farrell says.

"I spoke with players who just know about playing in Bordeaux. It seems to be a really laid-back club that don't have the structures that Bernard or Mike (Prendergast) have here. Just basic S&C and medical things.

"I know Madigan spoke about how he kept that groin issue that he had to himself. That's probably because you might not have confidence in the medical team."

Playing under Jackman and Prendergast has certainly improved Farrell as a player and he speaks glowingly of the structures that the Irish coaching duo have put in place at Grenoble.

For a while, it seemed as though none of this would ever happen for Farrell, who had to overcome a ruptured ACL that put him out for nine months and later a foot injury that sidelined him for another five.

He made just five appearances in his three years with Ulster, yet he doesn't look back at his time with his home province with any regret.

"When I was coming out of school, I had a certain expectation on myself to do something at Ulster," he explains.

"I had a couple of good games as a youngster in the Academy and then I just took on more expectation on young shoulders. I never lived up to that.

"But I wouldn't say there is unfinished business about what happened because it has all worked out in the end. I'm just excited about joining a new province with so much history and ambition like Munster have."

Given how important Farrell feels Schmidt's influence has been, there will be an element of wanting to repay the faith that he has shown in him.

As a boy growing up in Belfast, playing for Munster never came into Farrell's thinking but now, Erasmus' side provide him with the best opportunity to fulfil another lifelong ambition.

"I think everyone that comes from Ireland grows up watching Ireland and then coming through the Academy system as well. . . I always had aspirations of playing for Ireland," he adds.

"You see players coming through quite quickly. Nowadays young players are getting through easier almost. . . well not easier, but they're developing a lot earlier than they used to.

"I definitely still have aspirations of playing for Ireland. It seems like a decent time to come home."

For now, Farrell's main goal is to help keep Grenoble in the Top14 but closer to home, there is genuine excitement about the return of a player who is beginning to deliver on his undoubted potential.

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