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Born leader Farrell finally gets the opportunity to show his lifelong management skills

 

Date with destiny: Andy Farrell
Date with destiny: Andy Farrell
Joe Schmidt
David Kelly

By David Kelly

The great wonder of Andy Farrell's professional life is not that he would one day become a head coach but actually that it has taken so long for him to get there.

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Although he has spent more than two-thirds of his life in professional sport of one kind or another it will only be in his 45th year that he finally assumes the mantle of primary responsibility on his own terms.

He will begin this next phase of a quite remarkable sporting life against Scotland in Dublin on February 1 as Ireland kick off the 2020 Guinness Six Nations championship.

He is neither born of this land wherein he will lead nor indeed innately bred by the sport in which he will do so but, indisputably, it has always felt as if Farrell's destiny would lead him to embark upon a role such as the one he shall begin to definitively shape in less than a month's time.

He may be forgiven by many should he take some naturally faltering, initial missteps, particularly as he is tasked at following the seminal steps taken by the man who at once preceded and anointed him, Joe Schmidt.

One thing, however, is certain. He will find it much more difficult to forgive himself if - or, rather, inevitably it will be when - he falters.

"I'll be demanding of myself," is how Farrell sees it. "Performance matters to coaches more than transition and hopefully we can find a way of getting those performances straight from the start."

It is almost as if an impatience is driving him forward. Then again, Farrell has always seemed to be a man in a hurry. A man constantly one step ahead of everyone else and continually anxious that he remain there.

It seems strange to recall now but rugby league in Wigan during the 1980s was not as all-embracing as one might assume given the emerging eminence of the professional side.

Junior clubs were scarce and only Catholic schools - Farrell attended one, St John Fisher - played the sport.

He was Under 11 when he joined Orrell St James before being handed on to the famed Wigan Academy at the age of 14; Farrell was already so honed, he by-passed it completely.

As a 16-year-old, he made his first team debut in a Regal Trophy match against Keighley.

He was the youngest player to win in a Challenge Cup final, his first of four, at 17 years 11 months. The youngest forward to be called for representative duty, he won the first of 34 caps for Great Britain at 18, just five months and 10 games into his pro career; naturally, he scored a try against New Zealand on his debut.

At just 21, the second youngest in its history, he was named the Man of Steel, the sport's highest honour, in 1996; the same year, he was appointed Britain's youngest ever captain.

His was a playing career lived in the fast lane becoming, like the luminaries he would soon emulate - Betts, Hanley, Edwards, Lydon - recognised only by his surname.

Leadership - and captaincy - were elements that were imposed upon him rather than being sought; then, when acquired, it became almost a natural extension of his self, the rugged, straight-talking northerner.

He led and others followed; seven straight seasons in Rugby League, without missing one game, was leadership sufficient to counter several volumes of vapid theory on the subject.

He grew up fast in so many ways; a parent, with Colleen, herself a scion of Wigan's Rugby League royalty, at just 16.

By the time that boy, Owen, was 16 himself, his father had made the switch from League to Union, featuring in England's 2007 World Cup final run.

The pair laugh when they recall the disruption of the move from north to south; as Farrell senior sees it, the switch to Ireland was much more seamless.

So too was his transition into coaching, initially with Saracens under Ulsterman Mark McCall and then England with Stuart Lancaster.

The English experience scarred him.

But it did not leave a lasting legacy as he retained his role on a second Lions tour under Warren Gatland; during his two tours, a host of Irish players passed through his hands, including Paul O'Connell. "He was brilliant. An absolutely excellent coach. He had a great record as a player but he was a brilliant communicator, kept things very simple," O'Connell recalls.

"Very similar to Joe. He was able to communicate what he wanted and get what he wanted out of people very easily."

Like many, O'Connell appreciated Farrell's abrupt honesty. Unlike other coaches - Schmidt and Michael Cheika come to mind - Farrell has never succumbed to selling the BS of being an 'accidental coach'.

"I've always wanted to be a coach, from the age of 19 I'd say. I wrote stuff down from all the coaches I've had in my career," Farrell said.

"I suppose that's the type of player I was. I was never an individual player, I was always a team player. I was always a captain.

"It was always about how teams gelled together and I was fortunate as a player that I loved training, watching videos.

"I don't see it as work, I see it as a pleasure really."

And if there's pain, he'll be ready for that too. For this is what he has wanted for most of his life.

For all the roads already travelled, the next journey is only beginning.

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