Chris Farrell’s initial sporting passion was soccer. Growing up in Fivemiletown, a village in south Tyrone and a short distance from the border with Fermanagh, he played centre half for a local team.
Although he diversified in joining Clogher Valley rugby club at 11 years of age, where his brother, Dean played, it would take another five years before rugby held sway in terms of his affections.
Last weekend at the Stade des Alpes, the 21-year-old, wearing Grenoble’s number 13 jersey, recognised a defensive error from the Lions, Wales and Racing Metro 92 centre Jamie Roberts, ran a gorgeous line onto a short, popped pass, careered through a gap and then changed direction sharply, favouring an outward arc to dot down for a try.
It's a heart-warming tale but Farrell's back story contains a darker edge, one bookmarked by serious injury, disappointment and frustration, to the point where leaving Ulster was a fundamental requirement in continuing to chase his ambition to be a professional rugby player.
Farrell always stood out. At six foot four inches and weighing about 16 and a half stone, he cuts an impressive figure but there is a great deal more to his game than physique.
His starting point was with the Ulster Youths, where he played for their U-18 side three years young so to speak.
He takes up the narrative. “I played three years at Ulster U-18 and in the last one I decided I wanted to get out of the club system and got to schools. I went to Campbell College and played schools rugby there, winning an Ulster Schools Senior Cup.”
David Humphreys, Ulster’s Director of Rugby, at the time recognised Farrell’s potential as did the national selectors at various underage levels. His ability can be gauged from playing both inside and outside centre in the one season for the Ireland Under-20 team.
"I played 13 for the Ireland 20s in the Six Nations of that year because we had Paddy Jackson at 10 and JJ Hanrahan at 12," he explains. "When Paddy wasn't available for the Under-20 World Cup, JJ Played outhalf and I moved in to 12.
“I have tried both, at most levels. It always was the case of wherever I ended up playing most, I preferred. At the moment I prefer 13 but I equally like 12; where I played recently against Oyonnax.”
While playing the final U-20 interprovincial against Munster – his second season at that level – Farrell tore the anterior cruciate ligament; after a nine month enforced sabbatical he returned only to break the fifth metatarsal in his foot while playing for the Ulster Ravens against the Connacht Eagles.
The blood supply to the damaged area was compromised and six weeks after diagnosis, he required an operation. It kept him out for half a season. He admits: “I had a frustrating last two years in Ulster, just through the injuries. I got into a bad mindset and needed a fresh start.
"There were opportunities to stay in Ulster and other places but I chose Grenoble. I told my agent after I had undergone surgery for a second time that I needed to move elsewhere. He gave me different options and one of them was that Bernard Jackman wanted to talk to me. We met in Dublin, had a chat and everything was done within a couple of weeks. I wanted to leave Ireland. It wasn't just Ulster; I needed a total change of scenery."
After a week in a hotel, Farrell chose to live on his own in an apartment in the centre of town, broken only by a fortnight when he shared with New Zealand born number eight Rory Grice before the latter found his own lodgings. His parents, David and Janet, and siblings, Katie-Jane and Dean, have been over while a slew of friends are planning to come over and visit when the skiing season begins.
“We are in a nice area where there are six or seven of us within walking distance,” Farrell explains. “We catch up in the evenings, go for lunch and stuff. It’s not like I’m on my own. It’s quite a small town even though there are 50,000 students; everywhere you go you get recognised.”
Kiss on either cheek
He laughs when offering an example about new friendships, where the ubiquitous greeting is a kiss on either cheek whether male or female.
In Belfast he employed a tutor, twice a week to learn French prior to moving and now he has another with whom he spends three hours.
He’s comfortable with the rugby terminology while his ability to converse away from the pitch is improving.
While in Argentina during Grenoble's summer camp Farrell suffered a stress fracture to a foot. He played in the second match with the problem strapped up but all concerned realised that he needed to rest to recover properly. He missed four weeks and three matches in the French Top 14 but his progress since then has been startling.
He came off the bench against La Rochelle (28 minutes), started against Oyonnax (inside centre), then got another half an hour off the bench against Bayonne and then last weekend played 79 minutes against Racing Metro 92 (outside centre), scoring that try.
"I'll play again this weekend against Castres away," he says. "The next few weeks are very important because I want to try and secure that 12/13 spot. It's very competitive and I'm competing with Jackson Willison, who arrived from Super 15 rugby in the summer. There are three more weeks of Top 14 before we turn our attention to Europe.
“When I was 17 or 18 and doing very well at underage [representative] level I set myself high standards and was very frustrated not to achieve what I wanted to achieve in Ulster before leaving. From then on, I said don’t stress yourself too much about setting goals, just try and play as much as possible.
“Playing the brand of rugby that we play at Grenoble where we have the second best attacking team in the league is great. It challenges everyone. Racing had a good record but they struggled to contain us. I just want to keep playing as much as possible. If things happen after that then so be it.”
The odds are they will.