Thursday 17 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: Just ask Paul O'Connell how good Andy Farrell will be for Ireland

This isn't some dud Ireland have got. This is a brilliant bloke who also happens to be a smart coach who the players will like and learn from. How is that not a good thing?

Paul O'Connell and (right) Andy Farrell
Paul O'Connell and (right) Andy Farrell
Andy Farrell may have had a bad World Cup with England but he could be perfect fit for us. Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Remember 'A Time To Kill'?

The closing scenes of the movie? That courtroom scene when Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) is doing everything he can to get Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L Jackson) free.

Set in America's deep south against a backdrop of racism and prejudice, Brigance appeals to the jury's emotions, asking them to shut their eyes and imagine, if they could, that Hailey - the man whose life they held in their hands - was white rather than black.

But that was fiction and this is rugby. That was America and this is Ireland. Race isn't the issue but nationalism is. Ireland have just appointed a man with impeccable standards, serious character and an impressive CV.

13 Nov 1995. Jack Charlton waves to the crowd, with his assistant Maurice Setters, after Ireland were defeated by Holland, which was Charlton's last game as manager. European Championship Qualifying Play-Off, Holland v Rep of Ireland, Anfield, Liverpool, England. Picture Credit: David Maher/SPORTSFILE.

One problem? And it isn't simply that he's English - because as a nation we're able to rise above all that (Jack Charlton anyone?). The issue is we have appointed someone who the RFU decided wasn't good enough any more. Their reject, all of a sudden, is our new defence coach.

And all week, the same questions keep getting fired out. Why are we going down this road? Can't we aim for better? Surely, there are superior Irish candidates to Andy Farrell? Well, if there are, then introduce them to me. I'd like to know where they have been hiding.

The bottom line here is that if Joe Schmidt had appointed a coach from Australia, New Zealand or South Africa then no one would have blinked an eye. It is what we are used to - Les Kiss, Greg Feek, Gert Smal, John Plumtree, Alan Gaffney.

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But Andy Farrell? The man who played such an influential hand in getting Sam Burgess across from league to union? Wasn't he the guy who applied undue influence to get his son on the England team ahead of George Ford?

If he was such a big part of England's problem then how can become Ireland's solution?

Well, sorry folks but I'm going against the flow on this one.

* * * * *

It's Wednesday afternoon and I'm sitting at home when my mobile buzzes. A text message has come through. "Schmidt has made Farrell our new defence coach."

"Interesting," I reply. And then I make a call. Will Greenwood is a man whose opinion I respect. He knows all about Farrell.

"So what's he like?" I ask.

"Great bloke," Will says. "A brilliant analyst, passionate about his job. Superb motivator. And, do you know what? He's fun, too. He gets on well with the players. The Irish guys will love him. They'll want to play for him.

"The issue for me isn't whether it's a good move for Ireland. Course it is. He's world-class. No, my query isn't why Ireland are taking him but why England are letting him go? Why aren't the RFU using him in a developmental role? Make no mistake, this is a coup for Ireland."

I'm inclined to agree. I sit at home and curiosity gets the better of me. For years, I've watched a lot of rugby league and remember hearing about this 17-year-old playing in the Challenge Cup final in 1993.

So I go onto YouTube. Five minutes pass. Then ten. Suddenly, I'm clicking on video after video. And I'm watching this driven, aggressive, brilliant player sprinting right across the field, putting his body on the line for the sake of the team and making one smart decision after the next.

And it's clear to me that this is a man with serious character, because only special players make it onto the biggest stage as 17-year-olds in as physical and demanding a sport as rugby league. And then I'm remembering what it was like to be a player, standing on the paddock, listening to a defence coach.

I'm remembering how you needed to be motivated, how you needed to trust the man who was delivering the information. And my mind drifts off again, to Thomond Park and Lansdowne Road, to days when you are exhausted to the point where you feel like you are hanging on for dear life.

But a voice in your head is telling you, 'Get the f**k up off that ground and get back in your defensive line. And do it quick'. So you make that sacrifice and you do it because you haven't just been coached about defence but also about attitude, commitment and desire.

You think about your career. The big games. The ones that slipped away. The ones you won against the head. You think about key moments, the 60-yard run you made to put in a tackle. You remember other less eye-catching things, like the games when - as a team - we stayed switched on, when we trusted our defence system, and thereby our coach, when we quickly realigned to ensure our props weren't exposed against their wingers, when we instinctively knew when to shoot up hard on the opposition and when to push them towards the sideline.

And you remember how important the defence coach was to your system and your success.

You remember how the better ones were brilliant motivators on the training ground, how they energised and enthused you, how the information they fed you, via videos, made sense.

Paul O'Connell

So you think about all this when you catch up with an old friend on Thursday night. Paul O'Connell worked under Farrell with the Lions in 2013. He rates him and thinks Joe Schmidt has made a smart move.

Interestingly, Paul and Brian O'Driscoll spoke about Farrell's integrity and honesty, qualities which were called into question during the World Cup.

When he was questioned on this, I couldn't understand why because it was Farrell who argued the case for Jonny Wilkinson to be selected ahead of Owen on the 2013 Lions tour?

And let's be clear about something else, too. Ultimately, in professional sport, the head coach makes the decision. Stuart Lancaster could have opted for Ford over Farrell. He could have ignored Sam Burgess.

I thought about all this when I drove home from Thursday's dinner (where Paul broke the habit of a lifetime by paying), and thought about how men I respect - Paul, Will, Brian - hold him in such high regard.

These are men with a thirst for knowledge. During their Ireland careers, Paul and Brian yearned for detail and information to make them better. Never mind that they had already proven themselves as brilliant players. Their desire was to improve further.

And Farrell is someone they believe can improve Ireland.

It's needed. On my drive home, the World Cup defeat to Argentina came into my head - our passivity in the tackle, how we were not intelligent enough, how Argentina caught us out wide.

Ireland's Rory Best (right) in action during the Rugby World Cup match at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Sunday October 11, 2015. See PA story RUGBYU France. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Strictly no commercial use or association without RWCL permission. Still image use only. Use implies acceptance of Section 6 of RWC 2015 T&Cs at: Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further info.

Defence is about intelligence. Of course it is about attitude as well, about aggression in the tackle. But really, deep down, it is a mental issue as much as it is a physical one. It is about staying connected, about making sure Rory Best and Mike Ross aren't left one-on-one with Argentina's wingers. It's about making good decisions.

And Schmidt has made a good decision here. In Les Kiss, Ireland had a superb defence coach. He'd have held his head in his hands after that Argentina game because that was not what he planned.

The fact he was leaving anyway meant Schmidt had a gap to plug. And he has gone for a man with superb credentials, who may have had a bad World Cup but who remains the perfect mix: young yet experienced, confident yet feeling he has a point to prove.

Yes, he had a bad World Cup. That happens. Coaches suffer dips in their career yet bounce back. Think Eddie Jones, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen.

And it's worth considering too that this isn't some dud Ireland have appointed. This is a brilliant bloke who also happens to be a smart coach who the players will like and learn from. How is that not a good thing for us?

And it brings me back to that film. It brings me back to the fact that he was wearing a red rose on his tracksuit at the last World Cup.

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine if he was Irish, not English.

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