Saturday 17 August 2019

'I backed my ability and went over . . . Luckily, it has paid off'

Stint in the English Championship a key turning point for in-form Dublin-born centre

Tom Farrell celebrates with team-mate Tiernan O’Halloran after scoring a try against Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Tom Farrell celebrates with team-mate Tiernan O’Halloran after scoring a try against Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

When Tom Farrell first arrived in Connacht there was no grace period, he was put into a Champions Cup squad in his first week out west, and he has thrived ever since.

The 24-year-old centre has now registered 18 appearances for the province and scored two tries since his capture was announced on January 9.

But still there's no time to rest up, Bundee Aki departed for international duty this month, but a different Ahki came in in his place.

Kiwi centre Pita Ahki arrived in Connacht earlier this week and it adds depth to an exciting backline where confidence is very high.

"I have started a good few games but I am still not comfortable because there are some real good centres here in Connacht," says Farrell.

"The competition before Pita even arrived it was really high. He is just going to bring out the best in us and push us on even more.

"We haven't seen much of him just yet but we are looking forward to seeing him out there in a Connacht jersey."

The Sportsground still retains the fresh appeal that came with the start of the 2017-'18 season. Connacht may not have gotten off to a flier, but having a few new coaches in, and a different head coach at the helm, meant for exciting times.

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Kieran Keane finally found a winning formula before the international break, and Farrell thinks that playing in the Challenge Cup this season could be a blessing in disguise.

"It might not have been the worst thing missing out on Champions Cup this year. It would have been nice for ourselves and the fans playing top-tier rugby. But with the new coaches and new players, it's like a fresh beginning," says Farrell.

"Hopefully we can go far in the Champions Cup and ideally we can win silverware this year. We are two from two in Europe, and there is no reason we can't win our next block of games and push on in this competition."

Farrell played well after his arrival last season but never got to fulfil his potential in 2016-'17.

But the Castleknock native scored a stunning try in Connacht's win over Munster at the Sportsground recently and with yet another Connacht centre making waves, talk turns to an international call-up.

But Farrell is completely focused on playing consistently for Connacht, anything else can wait.

"It's a cliché that it's a dream to play for Ireland, that's why I came back to this country, to play for them. But for me it's a long way away right now. I haven't even nailed down my permanent spot with Connacht so I don't want to look too far ahead," says Farrell.

"There is a lot of centres playing good rugby around the country as well. That will be further down the line. I will concentrate on Connacht first."

Trade Farrell began his rugby career with Coolmine RFC and then in school in Castleknock, where Ireland international Devin Toner and Marty Moore both learned their trade.

And the Lansdowne clubman had not even featured in the Leinster academy before he played for Ireland in the U-20 World Cup at France in 2013.

"I was lucky, I was injured all season and just made it back a month before the World Cup, and Mike Ruddock knew me," says Farrell.

"He had faith in me. He gave me my opportunity when I hadn't played a lot of rugby. I am forever grateful to Mike for that.

"When I got over there I got regular game-time and started most of the games.

"When you get a taste for rugby at that level, and a year or two later you see players you have played against played for their senior teams in other countries. It gives you more optimism that you can play against them if you put it up to them at underage.

"I hadn't been in the academy when I was playing at the World Cup. I only got offered a contract after the Junior World Cup. I did my three years in the academy there.

"I didn't get a lot of game-time, barely played 'A's. It's just so competitive there. And to be fair to Leinster you see them reaping the rewards at the moment.

"They had so many guys coming through that it was hard to get a look-in and my time in the academy passed me by. That's when I jumped ship over to England."

Farrell moved to Bedford Blues in the English Championship where he was an instant hit. And with his performance levels and Connacht injuries rising in unison, the move west happened.

"I absolutely loved it over there. Initially going over I didn't know a lot about the championship or Bedford. I just took the chance," says Farrell. "I was still just 22. I still thought I could make it. I backed my ability and went over there. The ultimate aim was to get game-time to come back here and play in Ireland.

"I got my minutes and caught Connacht's eye. They came calling in January 2017. Luckily for me, I jumped at it."

Now he has settled in, Farrell is looking to help Connacht into next season's Champions Cup and he says recent form has helped everyone in the Sportsground.

"It's just changed the whole atmosphere around, there is a buzz in everyone's step. Everyone is more positive, with the coaches and fans too. Although there were only four wins we are still not even in the top three in our conference," adds Farrell.

"These next two games are massive for us, these two weeks are massively important for us."

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