Monday 23 September 2019

English blood and Irish hearts: The former team-mates who will cross swords in Dublin

Shaun Edwards tackles Alan Tait of Leeds along with his Wigan team-mate Andy Farrell (No 12) back in 1995. Photo: Getty Images
Shaun Edwards tackles Alan Tait of Leeds along with his Wigan team-mate Andy Farrell (No 12) back in 1995. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Shaun Edwards knew there was something special the first time he saw Andy Farrell with a rugby ball in his hand.

Beneath leaden skies, on a chilly spring day in 1989 in Orrell St James, a 13-year-old splashed colour across a monochrome afternoon.

The excited sideline observer, already a Challenge Cup winner with a Wigan rugby league side who would become one of sport's most legendary teams, already knew that here was somebody who could become part of that dynasty.

Like many of his instincts, this one would prove to be cannily accurate.

Within three years, Farrell captained his country's schoolboy side. A year later, still a teenager, he was walking out on the Wembley turf for what would be the sixth of Wigan's unbroken sequence of eight Challenge Cup successes.

What happened the night before revealed as much about the boy as the man he was soon to become.

In a squad that reads like a roll call of the sport's greatest exponents - Edwards, Kelvin Skerrett, Denis Betts, Phil Clarke, Frano Botica, Va'iga Tuigamala, Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah, Jo Lydon - coach John Monie opted to protect the youngster's nerves by rooming him with hardened Kiwi captain Dean Bell.

Naturally enough, a fraught night was spent, with one player constantly appeasing the other. "Don't worry, we'll hammer this lot."

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Consoling words, if spoken by the elder statesman. Except they were delivered by Farrell. Just 17, he was already a man.

"That's Andy right there, through and through," laughs Offiah, who was himself nearly 10 years older than the player who emerged as a stout, ball-carrying loose forward, before honing his skills to become a deft, kicking out-half.

"Even though he was young, he always had an old head on his shoulders. He was still a fun guy, liked to have a laugh. He has a dry sense of humour.

"Even when I speak with him, it feels like talking to someone much older. He rips the piss out of me and I need to remind him that I'm over 50 years old!

"Even Owen has started taking the mickey out of me. Like dad, like son, I suppose."

English blood courses through each man but within each bosom beats an Irish heart.

The Edwards family had been brought up as staunch Catholics in the St Patrick's Parish of Wigan.

"I'm a Catholic from way back," Shaun told me before.

"My grandparents were McCabe and Collins. Kitty Collins. From way out west. My mother's brother was a priest. We went to Mass every week. Faith is very important to us."

Edwards even played rugby league for Ireland, in Tolka Park 20 years ago in front of scarcely a thousand people on a dreary November evening.

"I felt more Irish as the game went on."

And even more so after it finished; he didn't return home for four days.

The way Farrell sees it, everyone from the north-east is, or has been, related to an Irish person.

He didn't play for Ireland; but in 2003 his twin brother, Phil, did in Glasgow.

His father worked in catering but was a prominent scout and coach; Andy was soccer mad as a kid but League hooked him as a 10-year-old and wouldn't let go.

His teenage sweetheart, now wife, was Colleen O'Loughlin, herself hailing from local League royalty.

Farrell and O'Loughlin; the family tree doesn't need to be extended that far to locate an Irish accent.

Despite Wigan's prominence in the sport, it was only played in Catholic schools when their great teams emerged.

The rivalries are as intense as club GAA rivalries in this country. And it spawned a memorable production line.

Edwards, 10 years older, came first, a play-making scrum-half of innate vision and hardened vigour. A year before he was born, his father, Jack, suffered crippling spinal injuries in a match. The son would learn to become wise beyond his years.

"Shaun was the elder statesman," recalls Offiah. "It was like having a coach on the pitch and we just knew back then he was going to be a coach in the future.

"He's a character, an enigma. You either got on board with his thing or you didn't.

"But as soon as the team started winning, they did. Professional sport likes a winner and he's a winner. He's always been about winning and learning, whether playing or coaching."

Edwards once captained England's schoolboy Union and League sides on the same weekend; he is League's most decorated player with 36 winners' medals.

Wigan weren't an all-conquering force when he joined them in 1983. They were when he left, 14 years later.

By then, Farrell was halfway through a career which would see him skipper the side at 21 and then become the youngest ever captain of a Great Britain side for whom he had made his debut at a mere 18.

Both Edwards and Farrell were awarded OBEs for their contribution to Wigan's incredible success; unlike Edwards, Farrell was once named World Player of the Year.

Between them, the pair did everything possible in the sport. It seemed to make all the sense in the world, then, that they should switch their attention to another.

As much as Edwards and Farrell are products of their environment, in the context of League and Union, Offiah reckons they are products of their time, too.

Since the schism in 1895, the sports pursued separate paths, amateur and professional and never the twain shall meet; Ken Goodall, of Ulster, Ireland and the Lions, had been shunned when he switched to League in 1970.

In 1995 though, Union would officially become professional. Soon, personalities from one would seek influence, and find it, in another.

Sniffy types in Union would deride the 'blow-ins' and carp at the occasional failures - still do, as the Sam Burgess experience in England would suggest.

Many more, from Jason Robinson to Brad Thorn, have thrived.

Farrell represented England - he played in the famous Croke Park defeat to Ireland - but it is as a coach where he has really earned his reputation.

"Andy Farrell would be coaching Owen in League had Union remained amateur because it's always been the bigger game and the opportunities are now boundless throughout the world," offers Offiah.

"There wasn't that historical animosity in other parts of the world between the sports that there was in England and Ireland where League was 'the dark side'.

David Campese played both and loved them equally.

"What they brought as coaches was a professionalism. Breaking down a linear defence is the hardest thing to do.

"It was easier in Union before that time because there were rucks and so much kicking. But as people got fitter and faster, the gaps disappeared. Teams realised that defences win titles."

The carping came because many in Union reckoned League was spoiling the game with ultra-defensive tactics, reaching a nadir in a dire 2007 World Cup tournament.

But their influence remains key; Edwards' development of the 'chop tackle' effectively ended Ireland's 2011 World Cup hopes during a time when he and Warren Gatland presided over a Welsh side who would win three Six Nations titles, two with Grand Slams.

He honed the famous Wasps blitz defence which also conquered Europe while latterly his approach is occasionally Spartan, offering a defiant defensive shield which, famously, defied Ireland in 2015 when his side made an astonishing 250 tackles.

"Shaun is very much a 14-man frontline, maybe two in the backfield maximum.

"It's about very, very hard line-speed going forward," explains Ireland full-back Rob Kearney, who is in a position to compare both men.

"Andy and his defensive system has a little more of a thought process behind it, a lot more onus on the back-three to work hard in his system.

"I've played in both and I'm certainly more comfortable in Andy's.

"He's very intense," adds Offiah of Farrell.

"He can step across the white line and leave everything behind it. He is ultra-competitive."

True to the script of their playing days, the younger man, Farrell - despite spending three years with Saracens and four with England - is playing catch-up with his old colleague, as Edwards was keen to remind everyone this week while none too subtly waving his own coaching CV in the air.

And yet Farrell trumped Edwards in becoming the Lions defensive coach - in doing so Gatland spurned a long-time ally and side-kick who has always had designs on becoming a head coach himself.

Before Joe Schmidt got the Irish gig in 2013, Edwards was down to the last four.

Five years on, Farrell is now the obvious heir apparent to the Irish throne.

"We don't need to harp back to the dynamic of Gatland and the Lions and all that but it's there," notes Offiah.

"There is an underlying respect but they are ultra-competitive. They will compete on every level."

Still good friends off the pitch, today they will be the best of enemies.

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