Friday 24 November 2017

Joe Schmidt needed a strong voice - now he's got it in Andy Farrell

Andy Farrell will bring some fresh thinking to the Ireland set-up. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Andy Farrell will bring some fresh thinking to the Ireland set-up. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There wasn't a whisper of Andy Farrell's name in the normally leaky realms of Irish rugby.

The appointment came from left-field and is set to send shockwaves through the management team when the strong-willed rugby league legend takes his place at the table after the Six Nations.

In the wake of the disappointing defeat to Argentina and yet another World Cup exit, one of the key decisions on Joe Schmidt's to-do list was to find a replacement for the respected figure of Les Kiss, who was Ulster-bound after seven years on the Irish coaching ticket.

We haven't heard from the New Zealander since his appearance on The Late, Late Show in the aftermath of that devastating afternoon in Cardiff, but yesterday he made a bold statement about where he wants his Ireland team to go by appointing a hugely respected figure who breaks the mould of his other assistant coaches.

Make no mistake, around Ireland camp the head coach rules supreme and his decision to add an opinionated and forthright figure who played a hugely hands-on role under both Stuart Lancaster with England and on the Lions tour with Warren Gatland is a significant step.


During the bitter fall-out of England's desperately disappointing World Cup campaign, there have been suggestions that Farrell's opinions on selection and championing of Sam Burgess caused divisions within the set-up. The fact that his son Owen got the nod ahead of the popular George Ford added to the intrigue.

The 40-year-old has been tainted by the hosts' pool exit, which detracts from his career as a coach to date, but Ireland have offered him a chance to put that chapter to bed.

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At some point, he will coach against his home country and his son, but he is a hard-nosed professional who is likely to relish the opportunity to show Eddie Jones exactly what England are missing.

Farrell will add a different style to a backroom team that has sung along to Schmidt's hymn-sheet since the former Leinster coach took over in 2013.

He is a big name across the Irish Sea and his media briefings will command attention far more than any of his contemporaries in the Ireland set-up.

Although England tanked at the World Cup, Schmidt has always spoken with huge respect about what Lancaster was building at Twickenham. The head coach was a hands-off, director of rugby-style leader, with Farrell out on the training field getting his tracksuit dirty.

With Ireland, Farrell will find a very different boss: a man who is involved in every element of his team's play and who is very much at home on the training field.

Watching how these two very different characters work together will be fascinating.

Yet the aggression and 'defend to attack' mantra that Farrell will preach when he takes up his position in the aftermath of the Six Nations will be music to Schmidt's ears.

Brian O'Driscoll spoke of the Wigan legend's emphasis on line-speed when he commented favourably on the appointment yesterday, while he also referenced his motivational abilities from his experience on the Lions tour of Australia.

In the aftermath of the disappointing performance in England, it was noted that Schmidt needed a strong voice in his backroom team to help challenge him as a coach. He's got that now

"He'll have an opinion," Munster supremo Anthony Foley, who acted as Ireland's defence coach on the 2013 tour of North America, said yesterday.

"He won't come in there and go through the motions. He's worked with Warren Gatland in the Lions and all the feedback from the players who have worked with him has been extremely positive.

"The best person for the job gets the job and that's the way you have to be. It's about Ireland winning and making sure the players are the best looked after, get the best advice, Ireland stay on the front foot as much as possible."

Aside from the dynamic between Schmidt and his new man, it was interesting to note that Farrell's contract runs beyond that of the head coach, whose current deal, signed last year, expires in 2017.

The former England international, however, is an IRFU employee until after the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

There has been speculation that Schmidt may look to move home to New Zealand when his contract expires and perhaps the union have indulged in a spot of succession planning when it came to bringing in such an experienced figure.

Farrell's figure will loom over the upcoming Six Nations, with the current coaching ticket of Schmidt, Simon Easterby, Greg Feek and Richie Murphy set to guide the team through their Championship defence.

It is a shame Farrell won't be able to make his mark before the summer tour of South Africa, but Ireland appear happy to wait, having gotten their man.

Despite entering a period of transition as a new World Cup cycle begins, the IRFU still expect the national team to retain their crown and, if the defence comes up short, then the decision to delay the start-date will be questioned.

However, judging by the response of recently retired players and the comments of Keith Earls at Munster's press briefing yesterday, the surprise appointment will infuse plenty of enthusiasm in the dressing-room.

Farrell will definitely add a new dimension when it comes to pre-game motivation. One of his speeches was captured on the Lions Raw DVD released after the series win down under and it laid out his template for defending in no uncertain terms.

"F**king destroy and enjoy," he urged of his players.

"We don't see defence in isolation at all, we see defence as the start of our attack. On 'D', we cannot afford to allow our emotional energy to dip whatsoever. We are taking them to the hurt arena."

Farrell will want his defenders to create turnover opportunities and tries, while he will call for Ireland's players to play with huge intensity and get in their opponents' faces.

Under Kiss, Ireland's defence was a pillar of strength until the Argentina debacle, but there is a good base from which Farrell can develop.

Yet for all that his on-pitch work will be worth watching, the off-field dynamic will be far more fascinating.

Schmidt has made a brave call, selecting a man who has all the credentials to rival him for his own job in the years to come and an established figure who will not be afraid to make his case and upset the apple-cart.

It says something of Schmidt's enduring reputation that he was able to attract Farrell to the role - and he is likely to be linked with any vacant Premiership job that comes up during his tenure.

It is a risky appointment, yet the rewards could be huge and the results will be worth watching.

Andy Farrell's career

Born: Wigan, May 30, 1975

Playing career

Rugby league

1991-04: Wigan, 370 apps, 3,135 points

1993-04: Great Britain, 34 caps, 134 points

1995-01: England, 11 caps, 78 points

Rugby union

2005-09: Saracens, 28 apps, 12 points

2007: England, 8 caps, 5 points


2009-12: Saracens

2011-15: England (defence coach)


Challenge Cup: 1993, '94, 2002

Superleague: 1998, 2000

Man of Steel: 2004

English Premiership: 2012 (as assistant coach)

Lions series win: 2013 (as assistant coach);

The youngest player ever to win a Challenge Cup at the age of 17, Farrell is a rugby league great who enjoyed a glittering career before switching codes in 2007; he played for England at that year's World Cup.

Since retiring from playing in 2009, he has cultivated a reputation for himself as a hard-nosed and innovative defence coach and was co-opted on to England's coaching ticket after a successful stint at Saracens.

His reputation grew when he played an important role on the 2013 Lions tour, when he worked with a number of the Irish team.

Last year's home World Cup pool exit for England brought a bitter end to his time with the national team as Eddie Jones opted not to keep him on.

He will take over as Ireland's defence coach after the Six Nations and will have his first involvement on the summer tour of South Africa.

Irish Independent

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