Some people have big roles thrust upon them and take time to adjust. It is different with born leaders: if anything it is more a matter of waiting for everyone else to catch up. Andy Farrell may still be preparing for his first Six Nations game as a head coach but, even in the unfamiliar temporary surroundings of the Algarve, he looks entirely at home.
When you have played international rugby league at 18 and captained Great Britain at 21, a roomful of reporters politely querying Ireland’s team selection to face Scotland is hardly a big deal. All those years as a No 2 under Stuart Lancaster, Warren Gatland (with the Lions) and Joe Schmidt have also helped ready him for the boss’s chair. “It feels normal,” he shrugged on Tuesday. “I don’t feel like I am doing anything but being myself.” If Ireland fail to deliver in the coming weeks, it will not be because Schmidt’s successor is wracked with nerves.
Already there are signs of a more front-foot attitude before the whistle has even blown. Schmidt kept his cards famously close to his chest: under Farrell Ireland have deliberately moved away from “paralysis by analysis” and stuck out their team to face Scotland four days in advance. There are a few judicious tweaks, too, in the shape of an uncapped No 8, the highly-promising Caelan Doris, and the demotion of two British and Irish Lions, Robbie Henshaw and Peter O’Mahony, to the bench. Rarely have Ireland – for whom Jordan Larmour is fit to start at full-back and the powerful Bundee Aki features at centre – had such conspicuous strength in depth.
In Ulster, of course, they would also have preferred to see the in-form John Cooney preferred to Conor Murray at scrum-half but those accusing Farrell of having taken the path of least resistance are forgetting the warrior traits that still lie within. Standing on the side of Ireland’s training pitch here he has been watching intently these past few days for signs that Murray is no longer the player he was. In his opinion the Munster man has been sharp enough to retain his place alongside his familiar half-back partner, Johnny Sexton; it would be a surprise if the Farrell instinct is completely wrong.
Of course there is an argument that Ireland, having underperformed at the World Cup, would have benefited more from a complete break from the Schmidt era. We will soon discover if Farrell is as razor-sharp tactically as Schmidt, as all-seeing as Eddie Jones or as sure a selector under pressure as Gatland. What no one should doubt, however, is the quality of the apprenticeship he has served in both codes to arrive at this point. From his days as a serial winner at Wigan through to Saracens, England, the Lions and, now, Ireland, he has worked alongside too many shrewd individuals for nothing to have rubbed off.
Two of his best mentors, he believes, were among the first coaches he encountered. “I start back with my amateur coach, Haydn Walker. He used to pick me up, take me to training, look after me at weekends and take me back again. I look back and that’s what being a coach is about: caring, being the right mentor.
“At Wigan my first professional coach was Graeme West. He captained and coached Wigan but he played on in the second team until he was about 45 to make sure kids like us came through and weren’t bullied along the way. I take a massive amount from him. He coached Wigan for just one year. There were five trophies to go for and he won all five. Why? Because he’s a great bloke and people wanted to play for him.”
Farrell, consequently, has always rated coaches on more than simply technical excellence. “I compare whether they’ve got the man-management and the emotion right and whether they can combine everything that makes a great coach. It’s so hard to piece it all together. I suppose I have a lot of thoughts about how I want to be and we’ll see how that goes.”
With his Irish ancestry – one of his brothers, Phil, once played rugby league for Ireland – and new base in Dublin, he also feels he has a decent grasp of the local sporting psyche. Having been a member of the England side hammered at Croke Park in 2007, he also knows what Irish excellence looks like. “That day [at Croke Park] has certainly influenced my mind. The game doesn’t change really. You’ve got to win the set-piece battle and the contact area. On the back of that, you’ve got to be smart enough, clever enough and calm enough to execute. I hope, for the Irish public, that we’ll be a team they’ll enjoy watching.” Under Farrell, at the very least, they will be up for the fight.
More information: THE GUARDIAN.