Wednesday 21 February 2018

Grenoble's Ulster behemoth in no rush to return home

'There is a touch of irony in choosing France as your workplace to get your injuries sorted, and reach optimum fitness, but it has worked out fine for Farrell (pictured)' Photo: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
'There is a touch of irony in choosing France as your workplace to get your injuries sorted, and reach optimum fitness, but it has worked out fine for Farrell (pictured)' Photo: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It will be the early hours of next Sunday morning by the time Chris Farrell gets out of Stade des Alpes in Grenoble. Between the post-match media duties, followed by food and glad-handing with the sponsors, he'll be in that twilight zone between the fatigue of it all and the buzz of caffeine still coursing through his system. So when sleep eventually comes he'll find that Sunday is a bit of a write-off. And all courtesy of France's love of 9.0pm starts.

It's one of the many kinks in a rugby system we will never understand. Yet while Farrell would love to be getting his head down a few hours earlier, it is the same crazy French system that is stimulating him when he is awake.

There is a touch of irony in choosing France as your workplace to get your injuries sorted, and reach optimum fitness, but it has worked out fine for Farrell. His career so far has been a series of short bursts followed by long gaps: playing for Ulster in a pre-season friendly only a few months after leaving Campbell College; and then a sobering two seasons spent mostly with his feet up.

When it came to leaving, he was trying to decide between England and moving elsewhere in Ireland, when a meeting in Dublin with Grenoble coach Bernard Jackman saw him packing his bags pronto for France. And again, a great start there was paused by a stress fracture in his foot, which mercifully was nothing like the ACL or foot fractures that had blighted his two years with Ulster.

Still, France isn't reputed to be the nerve centre of player welfare, so why take his troubles there?

"Yeah even the S&C side of it isn't up to what it is in Ireland and England so it was a bit of a risk from that side of it, but it's turned out really well," he says. "And at the time I didn't really have a lot else to consider. At first my family were a bit sceptical about the move but as soon as they came over and saw the place and how happy I was here they loved it.

"I remember coming over first, on the flight to Lyon, and thinking: 'What am I doing?' But when I arrived my agent was there, and he looks after a few of the other guys as well so that was good. There were a lot of new faces in Grenoble that year so we were all in the same boat."

And it's been a pretty decent voyage for all concerned. Certainly not one Farrell had envisaged growing up in Fivemiletown on the Tyrone-Fermanagh border. He was 13 by the time he fetched up to the local Clogher Valley Rugby Club, looking for an outlet unsatisfied by soccer alone. His other love was racing around on quads and scramblers with his bothers - "I was a bit of a motorhead," he says - but his athleticism made him so good at rugby that three years on the Ulster 18s club side would unfold from the age of 16.

By then both Gary Longwell and Jonny Bell of Ulster were tuned in to his talent, and moving to Campbell for his last year of school seemed the logical thing to do.

"At that stage I thought I'd give the schools thing a go in my last year," he says. "I looked at a few other schools closer to home but I thought with Campbell I'd just go all out and move to Belfast and be closer to the Ulster sub academy."

He has just turned 23 but the Academy days seem far behind him. Grenoble are mid table in the Top 14, punching above their weight for a club with a modest €6.2m budget compared to the heavy hitters, and Farrell is their first choice 13: big and strong, with plenty of gas and a passing game that takes him well above bosh merchant status. If you check out the Connacht game on Saturday then you might well see him going head to head with his room mate from the Ireland U18 side, Robbie Henshaw. And if you tune in regularly to Setanta's coverage of the French league you'll appreciate what Farrell has to offer, and, with 20 games under his belt this season, how much he enjoys it.

"That's the one thing here that over the last few years has improved massively because we play an expansive game," he says. "We haven't got the players to be running over people. We haven't got a Montpellier game where they have 16 South Africans in their squad. We have skilful players and we use that to our benefit and Bernard has employed a really good strategy and brand of rugby to exploit that. It's definitely really good fun to play."

It remains to be seen if Joe Schmidt is similarly impressed. He checked Farrell out at the start of the World Cup season but hasn't been on to him since. A good showing on Saturday night against Connacht would be timely, as probably would a return home when his contract ends next year. If that was to Ulster then the prospect of himself and Stuart McCloskey lining up together in midfield might break a record for sheer bulk.

"I'll reassess at the end of September but for the moment I'm really happy with the way things are going here," he says. Connacht will have their hands full with him.

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