Sunday 8 December 2019

Battle of the Farrells - Intriguing family sub-plot sees father and son on opposite sides

Andy Farrell (left) and Owen Farrell (right).
Andy Farrell (left) and Owen Farrell (right).

Sinéad Kissane

The Ireland and England supporters had long since emptied the inside of Twickenham on the evening of St Patrick's Day last year when two men dressed in suits walked side-by-side through the stadium.

They walked with their heads down and hands in their pockets on a freezing night in London. This was their own private time, away from their day jobs, away from TV cameras and any public scrutiny or curiosity. Right there, Andy and Owen Farrell looked like any other father and son.

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Only a few hours earlier, they were on opposite sides of the old enemy line. Like every other England player, Owen looked caught by surprise by the move his dad and the Ireland players worked on in training and which they pulled off with perfection in the first half of their Grand Slam win.

After an Ireland lineout, Owen went chasing after his usual nemesis, Johnny Sexton, expecting him to retake the loop pass in midfield. Owen almost stopped in shock when he realised they'd been sold a dummy. Tadhg Furlong passed to Bundee Aki instead of Sexton with CJ Stander finishing off the wonder move.

The House of Farrell is like no other in world rugby. As much as they might like to play it off as normal, a father and son working on opposite sides of two rival nations is unprecedented. It's not just that, it's the status they hold within those teams.

Today, Owen comes to the Aviva Stadium taking over sole duties as England captain with Dylan Hartley injured. Andy is Ireland defence coach and head coach in waiting.

"Yeah, it's still weird," Conor Murray said when I asked him on Thursday what it's like to have Andy speak to the team about his son, the opponent.

"Obviously Owen pulls a lot of strings for them so he has to talk about his son. But, yeah, it is a bit strange. He tries not to let it get in the way of things".

"Do you have a go at Andy about it?"

"No, too afraid of Andy for that," Conor replied.

This is Andy's third Six Nations as Ireland defence coach before he takes the top job. Since he joined Schmidt's team, Ireland have won both Six Nations games against England (2017 & '18). How it must wreck Eddie Jones' head that he allowed this to happen (as opposed to keeping Andy on with England which was originally touted) and is it any wonder Jones gets himself in a twist with silly comments before Ireland-England games when he knows the knowledge Andy has on his players and, in particular, the out-half.

The promotion to head coach will be a new ball-game for Andy after the Rugby World Cup. When the IRFU made the announcement at the end of last November, former England player Sam Burgess tweeted his support and reheated England's failed 2015 Rugby World Cup. "What cost us an early exit was individual egos and selfish players which essentially cost the coach and other great men their job," Burgess said. In his column, Clive Woodward wrote that "you can only conclude Ireland's gain is England's loss" on Farrell's appointment. "As for England missing out on a brilliant home-grown coach, I am almost filled with despair. Farrell has always been an outstanding individual, a great player and a coach of massive potential," Woodward added.

So, if England are losing out with Andy becoming Ireland head coach, what's it going to be like for his son, Owen?

"It's good for him yeah, very happy for him," was as much as Owen was awkwardly willing to say when I asked him about it at the Six Nations launch last week. Owen didn't delve too much into what the rugby chats are like at the dinner table between the pair beyond saying "it's nothing too revealing" before adding that contact between them will be "a bit quieter" this week.

It doesn't take a great leap to imagine how strange it must be for Owen that his dad and former coach now works with one of his greatest out-half rivals in Sexton. And look how well that's turned out for the Ireland out-half.

The Farrells have shown so much professionalism with their unique positions that it's almost easy to gloss over it but that shouldn't take away from how odd and challenging it must be for them both.

I asked Schmidt this week how Andy deals with it. "Yeah I do sometimes think in terms of my son, Tim, what I'd be saying if I was getting a team prepared to play against him," Schmidt said. "But I do think Andy is the consummate professional. He doesn't really speak of Owen any differently from any other England player. I think he's incredibly proud of his son as he should be".

Schmidt does feel for Andy's wife and Owen's mother, Coleen. "I think it's a little bit different for Coleen. She's probably hoping Andy's team do well and Owen gets player of the day or something. But I think as a family they've had a couple of years to adjust to these sort of battles so hopefully they're a bit more comfortable. But I don't think we want to make life comfortable for Owen and he'll be making sure life's not comfortable for us either."

Family ties have never been so intriguing for an Ireland-England rematch.

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