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How Farrell spelling comp intervention showed Ireland he was boss

By Liam Heagney
Andy Farrell seems to be finally accepted by the Irish public (Photo by Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

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It was always going to be tricky for Andy Farrell to switch from being Joe Schmidt’s four-year Ireland lieutenant into a capably respected Test rugby boss in his own right. The Englishman is now coming to the end of his second calendar year in charge and a vignette about how he set the tone for his tenure at the very start in 2020 has now emerged via Keith Earls. Ahead of the Autumn Nations Series, which continues next weekend for Ireland with the visit to Dublin of the All Blacks, the 34-year-old Earls last month published his autobiography – Fight Or Flight, My Life, My Choices.

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In the book on the 94-cap winger who also toured South Africa with the 2009 Lions, Earls revealed how he was diagnosed as bipolar in 2013, how he told Munster coach Johann van Graan he was retiring with immediate effect in September 2020, and how from about 2017 until the end of 2020 that his lung capacity was only functioning at about 50 per cent due to his liver being affected by loosened ligaments which caused a breathing dysfunction.

Earls also touched on the early days of the Farrell era as Ireland boss, the ex-England and Irish defence coach taking the reins from Schmidt following the 2019 World Cup quarter-final hammering by New Zealand. Despite having known players ever since becoming defence coach for the 2016 summer series in South Africa, Farrell decided to set out his stall by hosting one-to-one with all the players he had taken with him to Portugal for a pre-2020 Six Nations preparation camp.

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Why Ireland could beat the All Blacks
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Why Ireland could beat the All Blacks

Farrell struck a chord with Earls and how it wasn’t a chat for chat’s sake was reinforced some weeks later when the seasoned winger got caught up in an uncomfortable moment at an Ireland squad-bonding spelling competition. Here is how Earls outlined the revealing story in his book: “Nearly 14 years after my Leaving Cert, at a training camp in Portugal in January 2020, Andy Farrell arranged one-on-one meetings with the members of the squad.

“He was new in the job as Ireland head coach and he was establishing relationships, getting to know us and us getting to know him. In my session, we got around to talking about life after rugby. Did I have any plans for afterwards? I told him I didn’t know what I was going to do. In passing I said that I was brutal at school, I could barely read or spell, so I wouldn’t be going into some sort of white-collar, professional job. I had no qualifications like that.

“He showed a lot of empathy, the way he replied. Faz is a working-class fella too. He didn’t have the silver spoon growing up either. He said he knew lots of people who struggled with their reading and writing, it was more common than you’d think. He said I should just practise it more, even when sending text messages and emails, use the predictive text, and the more you do it the better you’ll get at it. A couple of weeks later, we’re on a weekend camp between Six Nations games and the staff have arranged one of their evening get-togethers for a bit of craic and relaxation. We’re in a conference room in the hotel and Simon Easterby has put together a spelling competition, big complicated words that the contestants have to try and get right.

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“It’s a forwards versus backs job, three forwards, three backs. And as he’s picking them I am going to myself, whatever the f*** you do, don’t pick me. Sure enough, he picks me. You’re not supposed to have a choice when there is messing like this going on. You’re supposed to get up and face whatever prank is happening. But I refuse. The lads are all joking and egging me on but I say no, I’m not going up there. Thankfully Faz steps in. 

“He remembered our chat from a few weeks earlier. So he just declares, ‘Earlsy doesn’t do spelling competitions’, and that defuses the situation. Later Simon comes up to me privately and apologises, which is very nice of him, but there’s no need because he just didn’t know. 

“Funny enough, I’m not embarrassed by the episode at the time. I don’t want to stand up and make a show of myself but I am not embarrassed either when Faz said I don’t do spelling competitions. Ten years earlier I’d have been mortified. But I am getting more confident in myself as I get older and less self-conscious.”

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