Ireland grateful beneficiaries of Andy Farrell’s resurgence
Growing realisation in England that the man they sacked in 2015 is a top class coach
Andy Farrell: “As for England missing out on a brilliant homegrown coach, I am almost filled with despair,” wrote former World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
A hike out from London city, 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.
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.
“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.”
Baptism of fire
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 delivery of the most loaded statement of his coaching career, one that also struck at the integrity of Farrell with his role and influence pejoratively questioned by the attendant media.
“You got one former assistant England coach [Mike Ford] 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.
But the accusatory atmosphere failed 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.
Everyone is hurting. They are hurting because they know thy hurt the people
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.
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 (3) and Paul Sculthorpe (2) 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.
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”.
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.
It’s a flawed system that fails to acknowledge English coaching talent like Farrell and to keep them on board
“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.
“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.