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Brendan Fanning: Why bringing in a trusted advisor can help Andy Farrell inspire Ireland


Helping hand: Irish boss Andy Farrell
Helping hand: Irish boss Andy Farrell
England head coach Eddie Jones and Neil Craig, the RFU head of high performance

By Brendan Fanning

There are 10,080 minutes in every week. A game of rugby lasts 80 minutes. How you use the other 10,000 minutes each week is vital when you want to win the World Cup.

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You have to deal with your players, fellow coaches, additional staff, executives and administrators, sponsors, the media and supporters - as well as giving precious time to your family and your own wellbeing. Preparing for three World Cup tournaments has taught me that there is never a minute to waste because every idea, word, action and their consequences have to be considered, calibrated and either adopted or discarded.

Each day from December 1, 2015, when I started in the (England) job, to November 2, 2019, the date of the World Cup final, has been planned and mapped out in detail. I'm an obsessive planner.

'My Life and Rugby' - Eddie Jones

The above gives some context to Joe Schmidt's comments recently that he hadn't taken a day off in the past two years.

It also gives some insight into the obsessiveness that goes frequently with the job of coaching a Tier One rugby nation. It's not for everyone. So where does Andy Farrell come on the coaching spectrum?

"It is a little bit like that," he said. "I don't think you have a choice really because there's so much to do. There's so many people counting on you to give them direction etc.

"I'm enjoying it though. I'm busy. I'm sleeping less but in a good way. I'm bouncing out of bed because I know what I've got to tackle that day. And that's exciting for me."

If he is still jumping out of his pyjamas in two years' time then Farrell will know he is on the right track. That will be the first major intersection on his first gig as boss man. It will be long odds on getting to that point without needing body bags.

Ireland's new coaching team comprises Farrell at the top of the tree; Mike Catt looking after the backs; Simon Easterby and John Fogarty taking the forwards, with Easterby branching into defence work as well; and Richie Murphy continuing as skills coach.

Of that quintet, Farrell is on new ground and Fogarty has no experience of the terrain. Allowing for the fact that both men are good at what they do - between league and union, Farrell has the guts of 30 years' experience of professional rugby, and Fogarty is a charismatic personality dedicated to his craft - it leaves them light.

This is high-performance sport carried out in an utterly unforgiving environment. The sensible thing would be to add some weight.

Consider that the load has already been lightened with analyst Mervyn Murphy moving on. Bit of a hole to fill there.

Murphy started with Eddie O'Sullivan, moved on seamlessly to Declan Kidney, and then Schmidt - that's five World Cups.

When consultants were queueing around the corner of Lansdowne Road to review failed Irish campaigns, they knew they wouldn't be listening to a whinge from players about Murphy.

Where others were hitting the deck at the sound of 'incoming' he was standing tall. Someone, somewhere is about to pick up a very valuable asset indeed.

The change continues closer to front of house. If a lot of people hadn't noticed that Paul Dean had succeeded Mick Kearney as manager three years ago, then his exit last week didn't stop much traffic either.

Dean, a top-quality Test 10/12 in his day, was well liked in the Leinster branch where he served time on the professional game board before being offered the Ireland gig. All those we spoke to at the time expressed surprise at the appointment.

Kearney didn't have Dean's playing record but he brought gravitas to the job in the way Donal Lenihan had done when riding shotgun for Warren Gatland in the late 1990s/early 2000s - a volcanic era in the Irish game compared to these days where mostly we have only tremors. Dean is not being replaced.

It seems odd that Farrell, in his first job as head coach at Test level, should be sent out front without a consigliere of some sort.

When Eddie Jones took over the England job in December 2015, he had already been through two World Cup campaigns, first with his native Australia then with Japan.

When it came to England he was halfway through the World Cup cycle when he turned to compatriot Neil Craig for a steer. As a footballer and coach, Craig had a wealth of experience in Aussie Rules. His title was head of high performance, but his job was to micro monitor the relationship between Jones and his fellow coaches.

"Neil did not have a background in rugby but his understanding of coaching at the highest level in elite sport would be invaluable," Jones wrote. "And, most importantly, he is a good bloke."

Coaches need support. They need to be comfortable and confident enough to challenge each other as well as the players. In the IRFU review of the World Cup, it emerged that the psychological support across the board was lacking.

As was the effectiveness of the leadership group in shaping their own working environment. Rory Best's comments a couple of weeks ago, complaining about the cramming that went on, and the overload on detail - notwithstanding his climbdown since then - revealed a level of dysfunction between Schmidt and his senior players that is hard to fathom.

On an extensive to-do list, this is where Farrell needs to start. Will he be bringing someone in?

"It's something I've been thinking a lot about - how to get support for myself. How I get support for staff, the players and everyone around," he said.

"What I don't want to do is jump in and go, 'There you go boys, there it all is'. I want to make sure to take stock and be able to see how things are going to keep evolving and progress as we go along the way.

"That's why I speak to a lot of people. Eddie (Jones) would be one. Joe would be another. Gats (Warren Gatland) would be another. Steve Hansen would be another. It's a small world really, rugby. They're all good friends. I'd make sure that I pick up the phone and meet people and take advice as much as I possibly could."

It would be better to have that guardian angel on hand rather than on the end of a telephone.

In England's set-up, for example, they backed up Craig with occasional visits from Frank Dick, who had led Team GB through four Olympic Games.

Again, his title was not the important bit (strategic planning consultant) but his input was. "He is just a smart bloke with a lot to offer," Jones wrote. "He has made a huge impact on our progress."

Jones also dialled up the assistance of a professor of neurology to enhance the learning environment for players.

So four pillars were introduced to meetings: the room would be open and well lit; there would be a primer to stimulate dopamine - it could be as simple as having a prize for answering a question right, to wake up players' reward systems; the structure of the meeting would have a maximum of three points; and the meeting could end without resolution, to encourage players to figure it out some more.

The coach also called in a psychologist with a track record in elite hockey to help the players forge deeper relationships.

It wasn't about pretending that the other 30 players in the squad were all your best mates, rather it was about understanding more about them so you could help each other when push came to shove on the field. In a world where players and coaches are constantly trying to improve, England went out of their way to tick all the boxes.

And to think Farrell might have been a part of all this. When Paul Gustard left the England coaching team in May 2018 to take over as Head of Rugby at Harlequins, Jones asked Farrell to fill the defence coach's job.

He had ushered Farrell through the door when cleaning out the coaching staff having succeeded Stuart Lancaster after the 2015 World Cup.

He says he wanted to keep him, but that being Owen's father complicated matters. By last year, however, the son was very secure in his position as team leader, so having his old man around, Jones reckoned, wouldn't have been an issue. Problem was Farrell was secure in his understanding that he would be succeeding Schmidt.

It was quite a statement of confidence in Farrell by the IRFU that they should have been so forward in their planning, for in the process it gave him a touch of Teflon going to Japan. And it's indicative of Farrell's ambition that he should pass up the England offer and bide his time.

Now that his moment has arrived, he needs to make the most of it. From this remove it looks like he should be less concerned with doing a 'stock take', as they called the 45-man squad assembled in Abbotstown last weekend, and start turning over rocks and shaking trees to see what extra expertise he can find.

It was ironic that as we were being shown around the rugby facility at Abbotstown last week - the IRFU weighed in with €6m to help Sport Ireland produce an awesome set-up - you couldn't help thinking that Ireland's new rugby management team would struggle to keep up. That should be fixed sooner rather than later.

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