Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby

Farrell's unusual road to the top finally pays off


Jonathan Bradley

Against the Springboks last weekend, Ireland's debutants were an Auckland-born centre who has made his home in Galway and an electric winger who just five years ago was a much-talked about hurling prospect as he pulled on a senior Cork jersey for the first time.

There was enough in both back-stories to keep the assembled media in copy for the foreseeable, but the man next in line to earn a first cap has himself been on a journey with no less twists and turns.

Chris Farrell seems set to play some part in Saturday's game versus Fiji back at the Aviva Stadium, a debut in green that at different times had seemed like both forgone conclusion and an impossibility.

Born in Fivemiletown, and with professional rugby players from Tyrone something of a rarity, it's no surprise that Farrell's first love was football but, following on from elder brother Dean, he gave the oval ball a try at nearby Clogher Valley RFC.

His talent was evident early on and led to him representing Ulster at under-age levels but there was still a nagging feeling that a more regular rugby environment would be required to unlock his full potential.

And so, at only 17, he took the decision to spend his final 12 months of education boarding at Campbell College, sitting his A-levels in east Belfast rather than Fivemiletown College where he had spent the last six years.

His coach at Campbell, the school whose last international was also a centre, 2009 Grand Slam winner Paddy Wallace, was none other than former Ireland number eight Brian Robinson.

"It was actually Jonny Bell, who was involved at Ulster at the time, who had said about this lad Chris who was showing up well for the Youths," recalled Robinson yesterday.

"He had said we should maybe take a look and it went from there.

"The first thing you noticed was the size but there was more to him than that. The physicality he actually developed later.

"Chris was a very mature guy, he knew what he wanted and wasn't afraid to leave his comfort zone to get it.

"It was the same later in his career when he left Ulster."

It was a case of faith rewarded when Campbell, who also featured now-Connacht wing Rory Scholes, lifted the Schools' Cup for a 23rd time that March, Farrell crossing for a score in the final against RBAI.

There was little question that an Ulster Academy deal would be in the offing, and once there he was assigned to Dungannon, playing at Stevenson Park with the likes of Paddy Jackson, Stuart McCloskey and Pete Nelson.

An Ulster debut would come just six months on from leaving school, his performance in a losing cause against Leinster seeing Brian McLaughlin cut short the centre's Christmas celebrations by calling him back to training and naming him on the bench for a win over Munster four days later.

Injury would follow injury though, the most serious of which saw him rupture an ACL and miss an entire season, seriously hampering his chances of cracking the first team in subsequent years under Mark Anscombe.

In 2014, faced with a crowded centre scene at Ulster, he opted to try his luck abroad, signing a one-year deal with Grenoble in the Top 14.

Life on the edge of the French Alps seemed to suit him and, finally getting some consistent game time, his new coach, former Irish international hooker Bernard Jackman, quickly became a big fan.

"He's got a brilliant passing game and he's getting stronger in contact," said Jackman last year of a player who stands at 6'4''.

"He's a guy who, he wasn't lost, but he had very difficult moments in Ulster with injury," he added.

"But just getting away, he's found game time.

"It doesn't matter how you get there as long as you get there, and I think Chris will get there."

His words would prove prescient, even if it took a move back to Ireland for him to come into Joe Schmidt's consideration.

While Leinster were interested, and Saracens too, a switch to Munster was sealed early last season and, the man whose Grenoble apartment used to display a sign that read "home is where the heart is" over a picture of Northern Ireland, was on his way back to the Emerald Isle.

While the Ireland head coach had been in touch long before the player still four months short of his 25th birthday landed in Limerick, it took only 10 games for the Thomond Park outfit, already twice the number he managed for his native province, to earn his first call-up to the national squad.

Against the Springboks, Farrell acted as 24th man, warming up with the starters and getting a first hand look at the Aviva Stadium on the day of a big Test.

This weekend, with the Fijians in town, he'll hope to be even closer to the action.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph