Monday 20 May 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Andy Farrell deserves this opportunity - but I'd like to see him call on ROG as his right-hand man'


Andy Farrell will face challenges in the transition into the Irish head coach role. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Farrell will face challenges in the transition into the Irish head coach role. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

I used to love watching Wigan Warriors in the early to mid-'90s; the frightening footwork and speed of Jason Robinson and Martin Offiah, and the magical skills of Henry Paul, complemented perfectly by the astute game management and sheer quality of Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell.

All five of those men made the switch to rugby union, with varying degrees of success, but to think that this time next year, Farrell, 10 months my junior, at the age off 44, will be head coach of Ireland is quite astonishing.

Farrell will be just 14 years in the 15-a-side code when he assumes chief control of one of the world's best sides - just 10 seasons in coaching. But as his playing career proved, Farrell has never been afraid of doing things ahead of time.

You could argue that his first head coach role should not be one of such importance, or that Ireland have been conceding more tries on his watch than in previous seasons, but the reality is, he is the best man for the job.

You don't make your debut as a fresh-faced 16-year-old for a club as big as Wigan, and in a sport as punishing as rugby league, without having extraordinary strength between the ears as well as being extremely talented.

To win a Challenge Cup at 17, the first of four; to skipper Great Britain and Wigan at 21, the age that he first realised he wanted to eventually become a head coach; and to also have a son, Owen, just four months after turning 16 - Andy Farrell had to grow up pretty quickly, but he has taken everything in his stride.

When I sat down to interview him for Sky Sports on the South Africa tour in June 2016, his first official assignment under Joe Schmidt, I didn't know what to expect - you never do.


He is a very big man, an imposing figure. Would he live up to his job title; defensive by nature, batting away questions with political style? Would he be wary of the media having surely been scarred by the aftermath of the England Rugby World Cup fallout just eight months previously? Not a chance.

For all of the presence that Farrell commands, he also has a natural ability to instantly put you at ease.

Straight away, he warmly explained that I could ask him anything I wanted. He is charming, witty and good craic - a pleasure to interview.

Just like he was on the field as a ball-playing, goal-kicking loose forward; off the field Farrell is an equally rare breed - a hard man who possesses a soft touch.

Farrell radiates positivity and after spending time in his company it is understandable why so many players, whether with Munster, Ireland or the Lions, opt for 'inspiring' when asked what word best describes the 43-year-old.

However, for all of his qualities there will be still be some tough challenges ahead.

Under Farrell, while there have been famous home victories against France, England, South Africa and New Zealand where Ireland didn't concede a try, our defence has been far from perfect.

For instance, Farrell has been in the Irish set-up for 27 Tests, excluding the tour to the US and Japan when he was with the Lions, and during that stretch Ireland have conceded 53 tries as part of an overall total of 469 points.

That averages out at 17.37 points per game, including 1.96 tries.

In Ireland's previous 27 Tests, when Les Kiss predominantly ran the defence, Ireland conceded 42 tries in an overall tally of 420 points - averaging 15.55 points per game, including 1.55 tries.

To be fair, the spell of games under Farrell has been considerably more difficult, with fewer ties against Tier 2 sides, not to mention three-Test tours of South Africa and Australia, and three matches against the All Blacks.

Looking at the cold stats from recent seasons you could make a case that the transformation of Joe Schmidt's Irish attack has been the real hero of 2018, an unprecedented year for rugby in this country. But Farrell's remit and influence with this squad goes much deeper than just the defence.

While Farrell doesn't appear to get daunted by much, the transition over the next 18 months will be difficult.

Whatever way the next year pans out for this Irish rugby team, whether they fall below, match, or exceed expectations in the Six Nations and World Cup, the Englishman will have a difficult balancing act on his hands.

If the squad under-perform in this crucial period, Farrell will have that to manage too, answering questions and dealing with the reaction while Schmidt moves to the other side of the world.

If Ireland were to win the World Cup and defend their Six Nations crown, for example, those high standards would be incredibly difficult to maintain.

When Wigan were winning all around them from 1990-1996, 20 miles east, still within Greater Manchester, Alex Ferguson's Manchester United side were beginning a run of success that would shape the first 20 years of the Premier League era.

As David Moyes found out to his cost, filling the shoes of such a highly-regarded coach, even with such vast resources available, is no easy feat. Succeeding Schmidt will be no different.

The assistant coach often operates as a liaison officer between the head coach and his players, someone who dishes out their fair share of orders yet is comfortable being with the squad in more social scenarios.

Head coaches, generally, steer clear of those situations. They need to be a bit more distant and to ensure that their players view them with an element of fear and uncertainty.

Farrell will gradually have to adapt his approach and reconsider his boundaries over the next 10 months, without altering how he performs as an assistant coach.

When Tony McGahan was the No 2 at Munster we were particularly close, spending time together away from training, going for a pint now and again.

Once he was made head coach at Thomond Park, however, that was all forgotten and he hardly said a word to me! But that's what he had to do, our professional relationship had to change.

The role of the assistant coach is hugely important and ideally you need the No 2 to complement the knowledge base and personality of the main man; someone who will be respectful of the status quo but who will also bring fresh ideas and be comfortable challenging the ideas of the head honcho.

For me, there are two outstanding candidates for the role: Stuart Lancaster and Ronan O'Gara. It may bother some, but I wouldn't care if we ended up with two Englishmen running our national team. If they are the best candidates, then so be it.

While Lancaster doesn't appear to carry any ego, it can be uncomfortable for anyone, in any industry, to work underneath someone you have previously managed. But when you consider how highly thought of he is by Leinster's senior players, he certainly has to be in the conversation.

I may be called biased, as he is a good friend and a former team-mate, but I think ROG is the ideal man to bring into the set-up post-Japan 2019.

He will have another season of Super Rugby under his belt and has already built quite a reputation, north and south of the equator, as a coach of great vision and ability.

It will be interesting to see what way Farrell assembles his coaching ticket - will he prefer to oversee everything or will he continue in his role as defence coach?

There are many questions still to be answered but after a week where Clive Woodward bemoaned England's loss as Ireland's gain, and Joe Schmidt insisted that his successor is "world-class", one thing is for certain - Andy Farrell is the right man for the job.

Irish Independent

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