Monday 16 September 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Man of steel Farrell needs an iron will to succeed'


A man for all seasons: Ireland head coach in waiting Andy Farrell alongside Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
A man for all seasons: Ireland head coach in waiting Andy Farrell alongside Joe Schmidt. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Andy Farrell was twice voted rugby league's man of steel during his illustrious playing days and his next challenge will require him to have an iron will.

In a year's time, the former dual-code international will be at the outset of the biggest job of his coaching career as he takes control of the Irish team when Joe Schmidt departs.

The Englishman wouldn't be taking on the challenge if he didn't think he was up to it, but following Schmidt's remarkable performance it is a mammoth task for one of the highest rated coaches in rugby.

Even though he's never been a head coach before, securing Farrell's services is a coup for the IRFU and their performance director David Nucifora, who would have had this transition in mind when appointing Farrell.

Back then, the former dual-code international had been damaged by England's World Cup pool exit and the bitter fall-out that followed. In the intervening years, he has enhanced his reputation sufficiently to be able to bat away an approach from Eddie Jones to go back to his old job.

Farrell would have headed the list of potential candidates on the RFU's radar when Jones leaves his job as England coach, so his decision is also a vote of confidence in the players and structures in Ireland.

Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Stuart Lancaster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

He faces a step-up in terms of focus and responsibility, but having lived his entire adult life in the cold and often brutal world of professional sport he will take it in his stride.

No more will the words 'defence' or 'assistant' preface his title, rather the 43-year-old is the head honcho and will inherit a whole new set of roles from his current boss.

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One of the reasons Farrell was attracted to the Irish job in the first place was the chance to learn from Joe Schmidt and he mentioned that factor in his brief quote in yesterday's announcement.

The two have worked well together in a high-functioning operation, parking any ego and managing to produce a host of stunning performances.

Andy Farrell lifting the Super League trophy for Wigan in 1998. Photo: Mike Hewitt /Allsport
Andy Farrell lifting the Super League trophy for Wigan in 1998. Photo: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

In 12 months' time, he will get to put what Schmidt has taught him into practice while putting his own stamp on the set-up.

Following Schmidt is no easy task and Farrell need only pick up the phone and call Matt O'Connor to get a sense of the pitfalls that exist.

At least the former Wigan rugby league star won't have Schmidt working down the road like O'Connor did. New Zealand is a long way away and it is safe to assume he won't be penning any newspaper columns or joining the ranks of the pundits.

Farrell is not coming at this cold. He has the benefit of having worked with the Irish players since 2016 and knows what makes them tick, has spent time working with the provinces and has been a central figure in shaping how the team has played.

That should make the transition more seamless, as should his existing relationship with the members of his staff who will remain on beyond 2019.

The make-up of his backroom team will be a key factor in making a success of the job.

Simon Easterby and Richie Murphy are under contract until 2020 and are both highly respected members of the set-up. Like Schmidt, scrum coach Greg Feek will move on after the World Cup having already taken up a dual role with a Japanese club.

Murphy may be eyeing up the vacancy as an attack coach, but Farrell seems more likely to recruit for that role and it would be no surprise if he has already spoken to his former England colleague Stuart Lancaster about joining from Leinster.

The duo will feel they have unfinished business at Test level after their strong build-up work came undone in spectacular fashion in 2015.

The IRFU have allowed the pair to rehabilitate in their system and are reaping the benefits.

There were some raised eyebrows when each of them was appointed to their roles, but both have made a success of their moves and have added greatly to the mix at Ireland and Leinster.

Although it scarred them, both appear to have taken the lessons of that failure and put them to good use.


Farrell is liked and respected within the dressing-room, where he mixes his hard task-master approach with a softer edge.

Until now, he has been able to sit back and leave the hard conversations about selection to Schmidt, who agonises over the team and squads.

An impressive speaker, he will certainly present a very different public face for the team than his predecessor who preferred a minimalist approach to his press engagements.

Farrell, like all coaches, will live and die by his results and no Irish coach will have ever taken over a team in such good shape.

The departing New Zealander has invested too much time and energy in Irish rugby to throw away the keys and you can be sure he'll do all he can to help Farrell succeed.

Once he boards his flight back to New Zealand, it will be up to the large man with the ferocious beard, piercing gaze and strong north-west of England accent; the man of steel who delivered so often for Wigan on the pitch and has deconstructed the All Blacks four times as a coach to make the job his own.

Irish Independent

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