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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Farrell has proven he has the rugby IQ for Lions task'

Mick Cleary: 'Farrell has proven he has the rugby IQ for Lions task'
5 months ago

Imber Court was a suitably non-descript backdrop with its lack of frills and facilities, just a few hundred spectators and a bunch of parakeets screeching across the skyline. No fuss, little fanfare, just the way Andy Farrell likes it.

It has always been that way and even if there were more bells and whistles on display as he was confirmed as British and Irish Lions coach for next summer’s tour to Australia, there was the same fundamental down-to-earth honesty evident too, a desire to get on with things in the same no-nonsense fashion as he had shown when making his union debut for Saracens second XV all those years ago in 2006. The Road from Wigan Pier has been quite the journey.

Andy Farrell
Farrell’s evident relish for the Lions challenge came across during his unveiling as head coach (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

But much as Farrell is very much a man of his rugby league upbringing, it was he himself who pointed out that he had now been doing his stuff in union longer than he had been in league. There is far more to Andy Farrell than the northern Man-of-Steel image, Jack Reacher with studs on, more nuance and layers and intellect than is often portrayed.

It is also why he was quick to downplay the ‘Hurt Arena’ speech that has become so much part of recent Lions folklore, the impassioned address he gave prior to the deciding third Test in Sydney in 2013. Farrell intimated that the tub-thumping oration was of its time, that an emotional call-to-arms was the right thing at the right time. It worked then. The Hollywood delivery might not work again. Of course heart and soul are key ingredients, muscle and bone also, but so too are smartness and cleverness. Andy Farrell is the sum of all these parts, of Central Park and of Imber Court and of a Sydney team-room, and that is why he is leading the Lions into battle in 2025.

There is so little time to get it right. You have to sketch out the systems and empower the players to get on with it. That is all you can do. It is about trust.

If there was no surprise in his appointment, then it should not lesson its significance. There are plenty of coaches plying their trade in the game but it is a sign of how difficult it is to get the Lions’ post right that so few have managed it. Ian McGeechan and Warren Gatland have been in the box seats for good reason yet even they have experienced failure as well as success. Graham Henry in 2001 didn’t manage to pull it off even though he had one of the best equipped squads to do so while Clive Woodward’s throw-the-kitchen-sink at it approach four years later in New Zealand almost resulted in the Lions concept being abandoned once and for all; it was that much of a dog’s dinner.

If nothing else, the misery of the 2005 trip triggered a massive re-appraisal of what the Lions is and isn’t about. It is so different to putting together a World Cup-winning team as Woodward found out. Henry made similar mistakes. A few months before that 2001 expedition to Australia, I was having a casual chat with one of the assistant coaches who was looking forward to getting stuck into the task, making plans, drawing up sessions, drilling and drilling and getting everyone on the same page. The schemes were all high-end stuff. But the Lions would have had to be on tour for about a year if there was ever any chance of the plans all making it onto the training field.

Andy Farrell laughs in <a href=
Ireland training” width=”1200″ height=”800″ /> Ireland’s players have praised the atmosphere Farrell has created during his time as head coach (Photo Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There is so little time to get it right. You have to sketch out the systems and then empower the players to get on with it. That is all you can do. It is about trust. Trust in the strategy in the first place. Trust in the coaches. Trust in each other. Trust in the back-room staff. Trust in the logistics. Trust in the conditioning. Trust in the resources. Trust in the mission. Trust in the Lions being worth it in the first place.

Several players returned from those disheartening trips to Australia and New Zealand at the turn of the century wondering what all the pre-tour hype had been about, utterly disenchanted that this supposed magical experience had turned out to be a complete turkey. No fun, all slog.

Intangibles matter too. His personality. His charisma. His humility – let’s not ignore the fact that he has had his setbacks too, yet has hauled himself off the canvas to fight again.

If there is one thing that has characterised Farrell’s time as head coach with Ireland it is that it appears that everyone enjoys it. Simple as that. It helps enormously, of course, that the team is successful as its reign as the number one ranked side indicates, with a 17-match winning run until that deflating quarter-final loss in Paris. But there is a chicken-and-egg calculation to make in all that: did the sense of fun and camaraderie help create the success or did the feel-good vibes come from that rise up the rankings ladder?

Farrell has proven that he has the rugby IQ for the task. So much for the tangibles. But intangibles matter too. His personality. His charisma. His humility – let’s not ignore the fact that he has had his setbacks too, yet has hauled himself off the canvas to fight again. Even at Saracens he had to dig deep after a back problem caused by a minor car accident stalled his initial progress. Nigel Wray at Saracens kept the faith in him and Farrell battled through to repay on the investment.

Eddie Jones had the option of keeping Farrell on the books after he took over the England job following the 2015 World Cup calamity. The Australian opted for a clean break. Amidst many considerations, he did wonder if the Farrell father-son conundrum might prove tricky.

2013 Lions coaches
Farrell worked alongside Rob Howley, Graham Rowntree and Warren Gatland with the 2013 Lions (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

It flared up during that 2015 World Cup campaign with Andy being directly asked at a press conference if he really were able to separate such things dispassionately when it came to selection. Farrell was polite at first then got angrier and angrier as the line of questioning continued.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I have never ever even thought of there being any favouritism in the pair’s relationship. You might as well accuse either of them of shirking a tackle. It is just not going to happen. Of course the question will rear its head again should various stars align and Owen make the trip in 2025, and certainly the Aussies won’t shy away from stirring the pot, but it is a non-issue in the real world.

For all the pomp and ceremony that attended Farrell’s unveiling in London, it was the sense of relish for what lies ahead that emanated from every pore of Farrell’s being that struck home. It was the simple joy of facing a challenge and the age-old warrior couldn’t conceal his sense of glee for what lies ahead. The 2025 British and Irish Lions are in good hands.

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