Head coach has put platform in place for his team to cement their status as world’s top-ranked side with strong Six Nations showing
An old coach once said of Andy Farrell that had he taken up golf instead of rugby league, he’d have become an Open champion.
Haydn Walker first encountered Farrell as a faintly introspective ten-year-old, pitching up for weekend tuition at the Orrell St James club that Walker himself had co-founded in Wigan. Within six years, Farrell was a goal-kicking loose forward for Wigan Warriors and would go on to play 370 games for the club, scoring over 3,000 points.
Walker remembers a young boy who trained with obsessive diligence, one whose appetite for the most granular of coaching detail meant that he bypassed the Warriors academy, making his first-team debut in ’91 at just 16, two months after the birth of his eldest son, Owen.
To become a parent so early in life, no doubt, demanded a social discipline from Farrell that wasn’t exactly commonplace in rugby-playing teens, but that discipline came to define one of rugby league’s most iconic careers.
He was the youngest player to win a Challenge Cup final a month short of his 18th birthday and had become captain of both Wigan and Great Britain (the youngest ever) by age 21. In 2004, he became only the second British player (after Ellery Hanley in ’89) to be named World Player of the Year.
He was, in other words, a generational figure within that stoic, obstinately intimate North England world of league. But others were, too, paying attention.
It seems mildly staggering now to think of the three-year, £700,000 deal that the RFU constructed to bring him to Saracens as a 30-year-old in ’05, a deal communicating almost blithe indifference to the fact that Farrell had – up to then – never played a single minute of union in his life.
It was, apparently, the view of then England head coach Andy Robinson that Farrell could be a figure to “revolutionise” the game.
England were, of course, World Cup holders at the time and Farrell’s recruitment was seen as part of a proactive strategy for their title defence in ’07. But a calf injury essentially ended his tournament and he would win just eight caps in total before retirement in April of ’09.
Back then, the idea that he would one day be the revered head coach of the world’s No 1-ranked team in union would, at best, have seemed fanciful, at worst, an almost clownish conceit.
Yet, on the brink of his fourth Six Nations at the Irish helm, Farrell’s stock is now so high that he is considered a future Lions coach, the IRFU indicating last week that he would have their full backing if chosen to lead the 2025 tour to Australia.
Since replacing Joe Schmidt in 2019, he has overseen what has come to register as a two-pronged revolution within the Irish dressing room.
Having spent three years as Schmidt’s assistant, he recognised a need to instantly lighten the changing-room atmosphere while also, palpably, loosening the tactical reins of a regime that unravelled in collective stasis at the last World Cup in Japan.
Schmidt’s hand remained uniformly, sometimes suffocatingly firm in his time as Ireland coach, a fact italicised by the famous key-card holder story revealed by Tom English in his 2015 book ‘No Borders – Playing rugby for Ireland’. On finding the holder – unwittingly dropped by one of his players – in a hotel corridor, Schmidt identified it as proof of tardiness in squad behaviour, likening it even to an act of littering by the ‘guilty’ player.
This was the flip side to Schmidt’s undoubted brilliance, the perpetual intensity of a personality that seemed to become more and more controlling during the latter stages of his time as Ireland’s head coach.
In English’s book, Andrew Trimble admits the environment could become “tough and unpleasant at times” under the New Zealander, while even current Ireland forwards coach and former Lions captain Paul O’Connell concedes that Schmidt was “intimidating if you don’t know you’re stuff or you’re hiding”.
One player goes even further now, describing the broad atmosphere towards the end of Schmidt’s time in charge as “claustrophobic to the point of being unbearable”.
As defence coach through that period, Farrell watched all of this unspool, the slow unravelling of spirit in the face of a joyless environment. Loyalty to Schmidt demanded he held his counsel, but there’s little doubt that the bulk of the Irish players considered him a far more accessible figure than their head coach.
No fewer than 14 Irish players had worked under him during the 2013 Lions tour to Australia and there had been, accordingly, broad enthusiasm within the squad when he was appointed successor to Les Kiss as Schmidt’s defence coach in 2016.
Farrell himself likened that appointment to a homecoming, given the Irish threads running through his family tree. One of his twin brothers, Phil, had played rugby league for Ireland in ’03, Farrell reflecting years later: “I was as proud of that as I was playing for England.” He maintains that a north of England upbringing equates, essentially, to being brought up this side of the Irish Sea.
“Everyone from the north-west of England is from Ireland anyway,” he once reflected. “You go from Liverpool across the east Lancs to Manchester and it’s full of Irish. I’ve got (Dublin) ancestry that goes back three or four generations and so has my wife (Colleen O’Loughlin).
“Coming to Ireland and living in Dublin is almost like going home for me!”
Farrell’s implicit message to the Irish players on replacing Schmidt was that he hadn’t been blind to the failings that, essentially, strangled the team’s creativity. Failings borne almost certainly of excessive micro-management and sometimes brutal video analysis.
His promise was that an Irish camp would become less sterile and more forgiving of human error.
More than that, he declared his intention to see the team play a more expansive, less predictable style of rugby. A style that would avoid enslavement to defensive structure.
Simon Zebo, one of the players whose adventurous instincts never quite tallied with Schmidt’s expectations of a back three player, subsequently admitted that Farrell’s elevation brought the most profound change of atmosphere.
Speaking to Le French rugby podcast, he revealed: “I won’t bash Joe or anything, but Andy is really attack-minded. It’s a different style, a different coach, a different outlook on the game. He wants players to go out and express themselves. He wants the wingers to get their hands on the ball as much as possible and score tries.
“The atmosphere around camp is a lot more relaxed. The players are really enjoying each others’ company and that is as important as playing well or training well.”
To begin with, the revolution dragged its heels. Farrell’s first Six Nations as head coach was the Covid-fractured tournament of 2020, in which they lost their games against England and France. The 2021 campaign got off to a shocking start with Peter O’Mahony’s red card just 14 minutes into the Cardiff tie against Wales.
Last season, they lost narrowly to France in Paris, but the arithmetic behind their victories in the four other games (29-7 v Wales; 57-6 v Italy; 32-15 v England; 26-5 v Scotland) gave Farrell’s team an extraordinary final scoring difference of plus 105 points.
The subsequent historic series win in New Zealand and autumn international triumphs against South Africa and Australia have now catapulted Ireland to the top of the world rankings in a World Cup year. So how real is this momentum?
Triple Crown-winning coach Eddie O’Sullivan believes Farrell’s Ireland now looks like a team comfortable in the pressure zone.
“They look assured technically, tactically and when under pressure,” he reflects. “And that’s pretty much the gold standard of international rugby. They’re just going to do what they’re going to do because of a belief they have in one another.
“And Andy Farrell has created that environment. I would also say that the presence of Paul O’Connell and Simon Easterby on the coaching ticket is a big factor. Because these lads have a certain gravitas and it helps that they actually played with someone like Jonathan Sexton.
“To be fair to Farrell, I think he has stuck to his guns in terms of the relaxed approach. You get the impression that everyone’s getting along, that they’re not afraid to make mistakes. That said, he’s working with a very good squad of players, too, a squad of real depth now with good senior management around them.
“New Zealand may not be the New Zealand of old, but the series win down there seemed to copper-fasten belief within the squad.
“Towards the end of Joe’s time, Ireland started playing a game that was so narrow and restrictive, it seemed more focused on not losing than actually winning.
“Farrell has changed that. The over-arching thing, for me, is that this group are comfortable in their own skin.”
With that comfort, of course, comes perhaps unprecedented expectation.
Given Ireland’s history (in nine attempts) of never having gone beyond the quarter-final stage of a World Cup, this Six Nations unspools as a kind of sustained drum-roll for events this autumn.
Assuming they progress out of Pool B, containing South Africa, Scotland, Tonga and Romania, Ireland will almost certainly face a mid-October quarter-final against either New Zealand or the tournament hosts, France. In other words, that World Cup road already looks treacherously mined.
The challenge for the Irish coach then is finding a way to sustain the current emotional buoyancy around Ireland through the next nine months. To that end, a good Six Nations will be vital.
“I don’t know, to be honest, whether I’m a leader or not,” he observed when switching to union in ’05. “I get told I am. If you’re asked, ‘Do you want to be captain?’, I always feel that’s the wrong question. You should know without asking.
“When anyone asks me what being a leader is about, my answer is, ‘Being myself!’ I don’t know whether that works or not.
“A natural leader? I’m not sure what it means. I know that it doesn’t mean just putting things across well. You’ve got to mean it.
“I don’t want people patting me on the back and saying, ‘Great speech!’ I’m not there to make great speeches. I’m there to make my team win!”
And for now, he keeps honouring that prayer.