Thursday 22 August 2019

'I want to be coaching at 60 because it's a passion'

A potential successor to Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell has learned his trade the hard way

Andy Farrell: 'My only goal would be to keep progressing and getting better, and working with the right people' Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Andy Farrell: 'My only goal would be to keep progressing and getting better, and working with the right people' Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Andy Farrell sees himself as a lucky bugger. He is still only 42 and hopes to be coaching at the top end of the game until 60 at least. If that comes true then he will be reflecting on a professional career as player and coach spanning the guts of 45 years. And who knows how many shelves will have been added to the trophy cabinet by then.

It's all about timing, he reckons. The door to Ireland opened just as the door in England slammed shut. And as a player the route from league to union had presented itself while he was still able to operate at Test level. Along the way he was exposed to players and coaches from whom he learned a load, when it could as easily have featured as many bad experiences as good.

Firstly, however, he was born in the right place at the right time, for to be a talented teenager in Wigan around the early 1990s was to have an invite to sport's version of Opportunity Knocks.

Wigan is a busy enough town, a satellite of Greater Manchester. Central Park, the home of its rugby league club, is the cathedral. As a kid, in the back of his dad's station wagon, Farrell would pass the ground en route to visit his grandma at the other end of town. "There's Heaven," they would say chime on the way over, and the way back.

Farrell's first time through the turnstiles with his dad was to watch Wigan versus Widnes. It was one of a host of big games on the calendar. On this particular day one of the Widnes try-scorers was one Keiron O'Loughlin, a fairly hard operator who one day would become Farrell's father-in-law. It was a small place.

By the time that connection would be made the young Farrell was making his way at Central Park. It is an almost unreconcilable element of his life story that he could have been surviving in such an unforgiving environment at such a young age. He signed for the club at 14; made his debut for the second team at 15; played for the firsts as a 16-year-old; became the youngest ever winner of a Challenge Cup medal while still 17; was capped by Great Britain at 18. How the hell did he do all that? Timing?

"Wigan's success was based on the best players passing on the best habits and advice to the best young players coming through," says Farrell's teammate at that time, Phil Clarke. "It was the waterfall effect. And they were fairly ruthless about moving players on. It was considered better to move an older player on a year too early than a year too late. So Andy was one of those young lads coming in early."

Literally, as it happened. At 15 he was training in the gym at 6.30am, doing a full day's work as an apprentice joiner, and then training with the club after work.

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"You're young and you don't know any different, do you?" Farrell recalls. "I was coming into a side that was established and therefore they could take a punt with a youngster. For me to have that level of experience alongside me - it was outrageous the amount of progress a youngster could make because of who they were training with and dealing with day to day, and how they deal with those pressures. It has to rub off on you."

Fine, but surely the older heads got the whiff of danger every time a new kid showed up for training? It's hard to imagine that markers were not put down.

"As a coach, I go through all sorts of different scenarios on cultures etc. I've been through cultures where you go from one end of the spectrum where a team could be unbelievably positive with each other; I've seen that work if everyone buys into it. But the Wigan one - it was brutal. Brutal as in: there were players who 100 per cent respected each other in that they were the best in the field but I wouldn't say it was particularly best mates, happy-clappy type of scenario. It was more competition and rivalry within the squad that drove the success side early doors when I came into it, for sure.

"Was I intimidated? Yeah, 100 per cent. The first game I played I was walking out the tunnel and Steve Hampson, who'd been at the club a long time, was trying to get past people to get to me in the tunnel: 'Faz, Faz, just to let you know, if (captain) Andy Gregory gives you a bollocking today just take it on the chin and get on with it. He does it to absolutely everyone.' And sure enough it happened five or six times because that's what the team was drilled on. They lived on a bit of fear of failure of individual performances."

It worked. By the time he left for the union code he had five championships and four Challenge Cups with Wigan, plus Golden Boots and Man of Steel awards. There was also a World Club Championship win over the Broncos in Brisbane, coincidentally while Ireland were also in town on their tour of Australia.

By 2005, he had miles on the clock but the RFU were keen still to get him over the fence, so a deal was done with Saracens to get him to switch codes. Good timing to move when he still could, but what followed was an 18-month nightmare of injuries either side of a car crash.

"It was the worst time in my life," he says. "Brutal, because 'Great Britain captain coming over, big news going to union.' Andy Robinson had brought me over and there was this joint thing of me going to Saracens and all this palaver and then boom, I couldn't play. I was 28 at the time - 29 by the time my new career would start. But the club and the owners - Nigel Wray in particular - were so supportive and good to me."

Was it true that he called up Wray and offered to work for gratis to earn his keep?

"Well, you just feel guilty, don't you? You don't want to be a fraud. I was just blown away by the support and I just didn't know what to give back because I was injured. It was never going to happen with Nigel anyway . . . but the team wasn't going particularly great neither."

"But that 18 months gave me a good background to not necessarily be the player I wanted to be, because I was probably over the hill and battered - and if truth be known, 'Was he a centre or was he a 6? He was probably somewhere in between and there probably isn't a position for that!' For me it was a great decision to move because it got me out of me comfort zone, got the family to move to London and all that and the experiences that we've had since than have been great all round."

You wonder if another element of timing shaped his career. Farrell remembers being with his dad dropping off Kevin O'Loughlin, son of Keiron and brother of Colleen, coming from matches. Occasionally he would ask to go in and see Keiron's rugby shirt. In time he would also notice Colleen.

It wasn't long before they were stepping out together. And a bit earlier than planned he found himself having to break the news to the fearsome Keiron that he was going to be a grandfather ahead of schedule as well. Andy and Colleen were 16.

"When I say he was a hard man on the rugby pitch he was very sensible off it," he says. "He was someone a lot of people would go to for advice. It was a tricky situation but something that my mother and father and Colleen's mother and father handled very, very well. And we were unbelievably fortunate for them to not only let us be ourselves, but to let us keep progressing to be the people they wanted us to be as well. I was very privileged to be involved with obviously my family and Colleen's as well."

A bit of a turbo boost on the growing up front then?

"I think so. I've thought about it plenty of times simply because that was the situation, and I didn't know any other way. That's what was happening to me. I hadn't been a 16-year-old before! Did it make me buckle down? I've no doubt it would have done but I think I was that type of person anyway."

The focus has delivered a remarkably varied career. While the shift over to union was late he still got to play eight times for England, including his first taste of a Rugby World Cup, on England's bizarre campaign in France in 2007.

With Saracens when he stopped playing he went straight into coaching, packing in a range of roles, learning as he went, before Stuart Lancaster came calling.

So between World Cups (not so successful) and two Lions tours (the opposite, thankfully) he is a rounded man. And surely he is the only player in the professional era to tog out alongside his son - a pre-season game for Saracens when Owen was, just like his old man had done, playing well ahead of his time. Unfortunately, the son was in the jacks, wracked with nerves, when his number was called along with his dad to come off the bench. By the time he had made it to pitch-side Andy was already on his way off, having dislocated thumb inside a minute, to be replaced by his son.

Nowadays they are on opposite sides, and it's likely to continue for a while. Farrell already is earmarked in the IRFU to succeed Joe Schmidt.

His arrival into the Ireland management was a chalk-to-cheese transition after Les Kiss had gone to Ulster. They are polar opposites in personality. Kiss was technical and highly respected, but confrontation would not be his thing. Farrell also does the technical stuff, but trades on a bit of toe to toe when that's required.

Given Schmidt's love of control this has been especially interesting for those watching at close quarters. It would be unusual in the Ireland set-up for the head coach to be questioned after he had clearly marked out his position, but Farrell is happy to do this.

Seemingly it is reasoned and dogged. Moreover, it is healthy - a new and tasty ingredient to the mix. So, happily settled now with Colleen and their youngest son, within walking distance of IRFU head office, will he be dropping anchor?

"People would ask about the future but I try to keep it as simple as possible," he says. "When I was playing back in the days of Wigan I saw a good number of what I believed to be unbelievable coaches and unbelievable professionals, as players, who were going to make brilliant coaches and probably jumped into head coach roles before they'd done their trade. And now a few of those guys are not involved in the game they love, or fell out of love with the game.

"My only goal would be to, one, keep on progressing and getting better and keep on working with the right people, which obviously this place has, and, two, longevity. I still want to be coaching at 60 because it's a passion. I suppose as a professional it's never been a hindrance to go to training, to watch videos, to do your homework etc. I would do more than most. Because I love it."

Time is nowhere near up then.

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