The frequent requests for tickets coming his way from family members ensure that games against Ulster will never be just another fixture for Chris Farrell, but ahead of his latest return for Friday’s URC quarter-final, the Munster centre admits that is about where the attachment to his native province ends.
The Fivemiletown native, who won an Ulster Schools’ Cup in his days at Campbell College, departed the Ulster set-up in the summer of 2014 after an injury-plagued few years when competition in the midfield was particularly fierce.
Three years spent in Grenoble, under the coaching of former Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman, developed his game before a return to home shores with Munster in 2017.
Test caps, of which he now has 15, soon followed and he has been a mainstay at Thomond Park, featuring in the side’s last 20 games consecutively.
Now 29-years-old, he feels a long way from the young man who left home eight years back.
“Other than the fact I had to get 16 tickets for my family the last time I was up there, I don’t feel like I have a huge connection to the province,” he said. “I’ve been away so long and I went away so young.
“I obviously loved Ulster growing up and they were the team that I followed, I’ll openly say that.
“But having moved away so young after it didn’t work out up there, I suppose I’ve lost a little bit of that connection.
“That comes through having loved my time elsewhere. I loved my time in France and I just feel Munster is a better fit for me as an individual. Yeah, apart from my family wanting to watch the games, there’s no real connection.”
Having torn an ACL and broken his foot during his time with Ulster, Farrell found himself behind a quartet of Irish internationals in the pecking order in Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding and Paddy Wallace. Now, as then, the northern province have shown a knack for developing impressive midfielders.
Stuart McCloskey, who was emerging during Farrell’s final season at Ravenhill, and James Hume have developed a stellar pairing over the past two years and are an integral part of the Ulster game.
Their midfield tete-a-tete with Farrell and Springbok World Cup winner Damien de Allende will no doubt be a mouth-watering clash on Friday.
“They’ve got everything,” said Farrell of an opposing pair he has got to know well through international duty.
“Stuart is so consistent for Ulster. He’s got it all.
“He’s huge and you’ve got to respect him in that sense, he’s a great ball carrier, but he’s got the skills and the ability to distribute.
“That’s (a) somewhat underrated (skill) of his but he’s an overall talented player.
“James is a great talent as well. He’s got a lot going for him in terms of his ability to beat defenders, to run, and he’s great defensively as well.
“They’re two great individuals but luckily for Ulster they’ve got a lot of game time together these past two years, they’ve both managed to stay pretty injury-free and in terms of centre partnerships that’s really key.
“Obviously training with each other, but it’s playing when the going gets tough and against tough opposition. They’re becoming a formidable partnership and they’re a key part of Ulster’s threats.”
While this will be the first knockout clash played between the two sides in 10 years, and a first in the league since 2003, Munster have the recent upper hand in games between the pair, winning the past three and doing so in Belfast a mere six weeks ago.
Farrell does not believe much can be read into that result given the vastly different stakes when Munster came north in April just six days after Ulster exited Europe at the hands of Toulouse.
“There’s not a huge amount we can take away,” he said of the 24-17 victory last time out.
“This is a completely different task, it’s not one that we can compare to what we’ve already done last time we were up there.
“It’s a really hostile place to play and they’re a team that, like us, have one front to compete on.
“They’ll want to right that wrong and I expect a reaction because they won’t have liked getting beaten by Munster in Belfast last time.
“Before that we hadn’t won there since 2016 (so) we can take a little bit of confidence having beaten them there this year but I don’t think that means a huge amount going into knockout rugby.
“We can’t take a huge amount from that. It’ll be a completely different challenge.
“Both are teams who feel like we can compete in this competition to win it, it’s going to be a huge evening on Friday night and one that we’re not going to shy away from.”
If Ulster are looking to offer a response to that performance when these sides last met, Munster themselves will be out to prove a point after their virtual no-show against Leinster last time out.
In a game when their fierce rivals fielded a heavily rotated team, Munster were never really in the fight despite needing a result to avoid an away quarter-final.
In the aftermath of that reverse two weeks ago, Farrell admits harsh words were spoken but doesn’t believe the loss will have any lingering impact come kick-off in Ravenhill.
“We had a pretty honest assessment about how things went as a group and in our mini-groups we had it out with each other about what we thought we could have done better,” he said. “Honestly, we probably got bullied a little bit there in the first 10 minutes and that set the tone for the rest of the game.
“We felt we were really well prepared for it and that’s the disappointing thing.
“We felt like going into the game we had good knowledge of what to expect from that Leinster team. We knew where they were dangerous and we thought we were well prepared, but we didn’t act like that when the game came to it.
“It was something we were really disappointed with and from the conversations we’ve had, we’ve taken a lot out of that.
“I wouldn’t say it knocks our confidence. We have to put our hands up and say we didn’t perform. Against a team like Leinster, if you aren’t at 100% you’re never going to win the game.
“(It’s being) more clinical, decisive with what we’re doing, playing our game plan without deviating when the pressure comes on. Trying to understand why that (didn’t happen against Leinster) is the big thing for us. I don’t think it’ll have an implication on how we go against Ulster.”