Andy Far­rell – Man of steel forged in the fur­nace of 2015:

Ire­land can con­grat­u­late them­selves on snap­ping up a top class coach when Eng­land let him go

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE -

Ahike out from Lon­don, the wooded Pen­ny­hill Park Ho­tel was Eng­land’s 120 acre, 2015 World Cup bolt­hole. Nes­tled into the folds of sub­ur­ban Sur­rey it was the stock­bro­ker belt, ex­pen­sive cars strate­gi­cally parked out front, re­tired codgers in old jags and a young, lim­ber set that poured in to use the ho­tel’s courts and gym.

It was here in the ho­tel grounds Eng­land es­tab­lished their be­spoke train­ing ground no more than a two-minute walk from the ho­tel front door.

Not un­like the way Car­ton House is strate­gi­cally set up for Ire­land, the pitch had high sheet­ing en­tirely wrap­ping the perime­ter so no un­wel­come eyes could se­cretly film Eng­land ses­sions from the sur­round­ing trees.

The RFU had in­vested heav­ily, ¤2.8 mil­lion in a new pitch, a two-storey train­ing cen­tre hous­ing a gym, weights area and chang­ing rooms, as well as a new ar­ti­fi­cial 3G pitch, fol­low­ing crit­i­cism of the fa­cil­i­ties dur­ing the build-up to the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Em­brac­ing Sun­ning­dale, Went­worth and Ascot, it didn’t seem like the nat­u­ral ter­rain for two au­then­tic north­ern­ers in Wi­gan’s Andy Far­rell and Eng­land head coach Stu­art Lan­caster from Cum­ber­land.

But it wouldn’t take long for the idyll to crum­ble, the Lon­don hin­ter­land de­te­ri­o­rat­ing into a di­a­mond-en­crusted prison bristling with re­crim­i­na­tion after just two matches in their pool.

An as­sis­tant to Lan­caster but by rep­u­ta­tion a front­line per­son­al­ity, over the next three weeks Far­rell had a front row view of Eng­land’s house burn­ing down; the first host na­tion in his­tory to tum­ble out of a World Cup be­fore the knock­out phase.

Far­rell won’t feel the need to smile about it now. But through the prism of his­tory and the be­lated words of Sam Burgess, the rugby league star hastily cat­a­pulted into the 2015 World Cup squad, there was more at play in Pen­ny­hill than tac­ti­cal calls and se­lec­tion de­ci­sions.

Bap­tism of fire

“What cost us an early exit was in­di­vid­ual egos and self­ish play­ers not fol­low­ing our leader which, es­sen­tially, cost the coach and other great men their jobs,” said Burgess this week. “I guar­an­tee you this, I was com­mit­ted but oth­ers had their own agen­das.”

The irony was Burgess, now back play­ing rugby league in Aus­tralia, was one of the is­sues that be­gan to bub­ble when, hav­ing beaten Fiji in their open­ing pool game, Eng­land lost their se­cond match to Wales. They found them­selves in squeaky bum ter­ri­tory with Aus­tralia next up in a win or bust match.

But that’s rac­ing for­ward. Far­rell’s bap­tism of fire be­gan be­fore Aus­tralia. It be­gan be­fore Wales. It be­gan when Ge­orge Ford was dropped from the Eng­land team for Owen Far­rell and Burgess was picked to start in the cen­tre with Brad Bar­ritt.

At the team an­nounce­ment, Lan­caster took it upon him­self to an­swer one of the most loaded ques­tions he faced in his coach­ing ca­reer, one that also struck at the in­tegrity of Far­rell with his role and in­flu­ence be­ing pe­jo­ra­tively ques­tioned by the at­ten­dant me­dia.

“You got one for­mer as­sis­tant Eng­land coach on the out­side say­ing ‘I’m mys­ti­fied that you dropped my son (Ge­orge),’ and you se­lect in­stead the son [Owen] ) of a cur­rent as­sis­tant Eng­land coach [Andy]. That’s not help­ful for you from the out­side. You know that?”

Lan­caster, in so far as he does, an­grily re­jected the sug­ges­tion that Far­rell pushed for his son to play.

“To say there’s a bias in se­lec­tion is ab­so­lutely in­cor­rect and com­pletely un­fair on the in­tegrity of Andy Far­rell, who I hold in the high­est re­gard,” he said. “To sug­gest he would want to pro­mote his son over any­one else is com­pletely un­true and un­fair. The ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion on se­lec­tion al­ways rests with me,” he added.

“To sug­gest that Andy has an un­due in­flu­ence on se­lec­tion is just wrong. He has an equal voice along­side the oth­ers. No more or less.”

Eng­land lost the match 25-28. In dra­matic fash­ion it was dis­tilled down to a late and mis­judged de­ci­sion from cap­tain Chris Rob­shaw to kick for a failed li­ne­out rather than al­low Far­rell’s sure boot earn Eng­land a pos­si­ble draw.

Ac­cusatory at­mos­phere

But the ac­cusatory at­mos­phere pre­cluded re­flec­tion or anal­y­sis as the mood switched from crit­i­cal and ques­tion­ing to scathing.

The Daily Mail head­line read “Ama­teurs”. For­mer cap­tain Will Car­ling char­ac­terised the Eng­land set up as “a school­room at­mos­phere”.

In the after­math, back in Pen­ny­hill Park, Far­rell sat alone on the el­e­vated stage in the press cen­tre, con­ve­niently ad­ja­cent to the ho­tel. Just the Eng­land me­dia man­ager sat nearby.

“Kyran Bracken [Dublin-born Eng­land player] said on ra­dio you had too much say in se­lec­tion meet­ings. A big call for the Wales game was to bring back your son for Ge­orge Ford. Was there a con­flict of in­ter­est there?” Far­rell glared at the ques­tioner. “Come on Phil,” he pleaded.

“You’d have to have a heart of stone not to,” added the ac­cuser mak­ing Far­rell out to be ei­ther a heart­less fa­ther or one har­bour­ing fam­ily bias. “Are you say­ing there was no con­flict of in­ter­est.”

“I think I’ve just an­swered that ques­tion,” replied Far­rell fix­ing the broad­caster with a pro­longed stare.

Seven days later Aus­tralia would beat Eng­land 13-33 in Twick­en­ham. Again there was no minc­ing of words. Far­rell, this time sit­ting on a chair in a room off the larger press cen­tre au­di­to­rium and just inches from his crit­ics. Again he fielded grenades.

Oc­ca­sion­ally he would throw the more in­sult­ing ones back. But largely he sat still of­fer­ing ex­pla­na­tions to what all in the room be­lieved in­ex­pli­ca­ble. The thrust of the crit­i­cism was that Bar­ritt, Burgess and Owen Far­rell were mules planted in the cen­tre and lack­ing cre­ativ­ity and sub­tlety.

“Is that how you see it?” quipped the fray­ing coach to one of his ac­cusers.

“Yes,” came the one-word re­ply.

Bru­tal emas­cu­la­tion

Lan­caster was re­ceiv­ing sim­i­lar treat­ment in a bru­tal emas­cu­la­tion as Eng­land limped off to Manch­ester to play Uruguay in a dead rub­ber, out of the tour­na­ment, out of favour and the RFU hold­ing off pulling the trig­ger.

Not from kind­ness. They didn’t wish a man­age­rial sack­ing to dis­tract from a World Cup knock­out phase press­ing on with­out them. “Ev­ery­one is hurt­ing,” said Far­rell. “They are hurt­ing be­cause they know they hurt the peo­ple.”

It hurt even more when South Africa were as­signed the well-ap­pointed Penny Hill Park for the quar­ter-fi­nals. They made a point of re­mark­ing on the fine fa­cil­i­ties.

What the open­ing three weeks re­vealed was a uniquely vul­ner­a­ble Far­rell, a ver­sion un­seen in Ire­land. It was not the com­bat­ive for­mer player, not the man who led from the front and who, in his play­ing days with Wi­gan in rugby league, was one of just three play­ers with Ellery Han­ley (three) and Paul Sculthorpe (two) to win the game’s ‘man of steel’ award more than once.

The boy, who at 17-years-old played pro­fes­sional rugby and at 18 played for Eng­land seemed per­son­ally wounded.

Never be­fore had many of the virtues that placed him among the gi­ants of the game been picked clean.

But three years on and this week re­vi­sion­ism is rife. With the Burgess tweets, un­der­cur­rents of Eng­land player egos, and hints of dis­loyal be­hav­iour, Far­rell’s front in Sur­rey can now be seen as strength of char­ac­ter.

From his home in Dublin’s Sandy­mount he keeps a low pro­file, a re­spect­ful dis­tance from the me­dia know­ing that over the last few years his body of work in Ire­land with Sch­midt has placed him cen­trally in rugby’s vel­vet rev­o­lu­tion.

Ris­ing to a point where his name has tem­pered re­ac­tion to the un­wanted de­par­ture of Sch­midt a year from now is a won­der and has been seam­less. And it has all come from the mouths of Ir­ish play­ers.

They have framed Far­rell as a man to fol­low. They talk of him be­liev­ing they have to rise to meet him.

“He makes it feel per­sonal for him,” ex­plained Rory Best mark­ing the depth of the coach’s in­vest­ment. That per­son­al­ity and play­ing ca­reer across two codes has cre­ated an aura that comes only as a con­se­quence of the world Far­rell in­hab­its. Para­dox­i­cally one of the words used to dis­credit him in Bagshot, in­tegrity, is the same word Ir­ish play­ers use to give him value.

But his value couldn’t be dis­cerned amid the back­lash. When Ed­die Jones ar­rived in the un­for­giv­ing at­mos­phere of De­cem­ber 2015 and after Lan­caster had stepped down, he fired Far­rell, Gra­ham Rown­tree and Mike Catt.

Fresh start

At the time, Jones em­pha­sised the need for a fresh start, say­ing: “We felt it was the right time to make changes. I just felt it was in the in­ter­ests of the team to move on”. No longer. In Eng­land the en­mi­ties have been for­got­ten and ear­lier this sum­mer the signs were that the frost had en­tirely thawed, when they tried in vain to bring Far­rell back as de­fence coach.

It was two-and-a-half years since they had cut him loose. He re­jected their ap­proach and the RFU would an­nounce that ex-All Blacks head coach John Mitchell would join Jones’ set-up, to re­place Paul Gus­tard.

More re­cently no less a pa­per than The Daily Mail, which in 2015 had called Far­rell and the play­ers “ama­teurs”, re­ferred to the coach in his new in­car­na­tion as “a highly-re­spected de­fen­sive guru and supreme mo­ti­va­tor”.

The scoop ex­plained that Jones was un­der­stood to have had reser­va­tions about the prospect of a fa­ther-son dy­namic within the Eng­land set-up.

But it added: “Andy and Owen Far­rell have al­ways demon­strated com­plete pro­fes­sion­al­ism in their coach-player re­la­tion­ship”. How the rugby world turns. World Cup-win­ning coach Clive Wood­ward also saw the Ir­ish twist of a man least ad­mired in his own parish. Wood­ward be­moaned the at­mos­phere of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, a mood that will surely claim the scalp of Jones if Eng­land mis­fire in Tokyo next year.

“As for Eng­land miss­ing out on a bril­liant home­grown coach, I am al­most filled with de­spair,” wrote Wood­ward. “Far­rell has al­ways been an out­stand­ing in­di­vid­ual, a great player and a coach of mas­sive po­ten­tial.

What cost us an early exit was in­di­vid­ual egos and self­ish play­ers not fol­low­ing our leader. – Sam Burgess We felt it was the right time to make changes. I just felt it was in the in­ter­ests of the team to move on. – Ed­die Jones As for Eng­land miss­ing out on a bril­liant home­grown coach, I am al­most filled with de­spair. – Clive Wood­ward

“Ev­ery na­tional coach – or as­sis­tant coach as Far­rell was – will at some time be as­so­ci­ated with fail­ure. Ed­die Jones, Gra­ham Henry, Steve Hansen, War­ren Gat­land, my­self and many oth­ers have been there and got the T-shirt. But that didn’t make us bad coaches.

“It’s a flawed sys­tem that fails to ac­knowl­edge English coach­ing tal­ent like Far­rell and to keep them on board.”

It only took three weeks be­tween Jones’ mid-De­cem­ber 2015 ar­rival, his dec­la­ra­tion of Far­rell as a ‘fan­tas­tic’ coach, then fir­ing him, and then Ire­land ink­ing a deal with the for­mer Eng­land lose for­ward.

Ir­ish rugby might al­most feel smug about its pre­science. Who could have known what would be sal­vaged from the flames of Sur­rey.


Andy Far­rell will take over as Ire­land’s head coach when Joe Sch­midt leaves after next year’s World Cup.

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