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How leaving Ulster and Joe Schmidt's support were key steps on Chris Farrell's road to Rugby World Cup debut

A lot of work has gone in to lead Chris Farrell to Japan.
A lot of work has gone in to lead Chris Farrell to Japan.
Chris Farrell made his World Cup debut as an early replacement against Scotland.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

That Chris Farrell's World Cup bow came so much sooner than expected goes against the grain of his career.

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The Tyrone native was introduced from the bench just twenty minutes into the win over Scotland, called upon one quarter into the action after Bundee Aki was withdrawn for an HIA.

Slotting in at inside centre beside Garry Ringrose, he carried strongly and produced one sumptuous offload for Luke McGrath, as well as doing everything asked of him in an impressive defensive display that gave Gregor Townsend's key playmakers little space to operate.

Despite being so nervous about his place in the 31-man panel that his parents - now in Japan for the first three games - weren't allowed to book flights until after Joe Schmidt had finally confirmed his squad, he looked to the manor born on the big stage.

There was a time when it was taken for granted that he'd get to be where he stands today and another when it seemed his chance would never come.

A highly-touted schoolboy prospect, his man of the match display in Campbell College Schools' Cup final win over RBAI at Ravenhill seemed to herald the arrival of a new star in Ulster Rugby, an impression only enhanced, when just six months after leaving school, he debuted for the senior side in their Pro12 derby against Leinster in the RDS.

He went head-to-head with Gordan D'Arcy that night. He seemed a strong candidate to eventually succeed him in Ireland's midfield too.

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Injuries, two of them serious to his knee, and a centre logjam in Belfast derailed him at his home province and soon he was on the move, joining former Leinster and Irish hooker Bernard Jackman at Grenoble in the Top 14.

Back in Ireland with Munster since the summer of 2017, Saturday's performance in a crucial World Cup clash offers further vindication for taking the road less travelled.

"It's made it all worthwhile," he said at the Yumeria Sports Ground, Ireland's latest World Cup training base ahead of Saturday's pool clash against hosts Japan.

"I never doubted what I was doing when I was going, I knew it was a good decision and a really good opportunity. I took risks and they've paid off which is great.

"I was only out of the Academy in Ulster (at the time). I was 21 and leaving the country at a stage when I hadn't really made a mark in the provincial game, it was a shot in the dark, something I was going to have a crack at. It was a good opportunity to play in a top league against top internationals, but you do think the international thing is probably gone unless you do really, really well. Fortunately, things worked out well.

"I wasn't out there that long before I was in contact with Joe. I said I wanted to stay a bit longer and get more game-time and I did that throughout the years.

"Beyond chatting to him initially he kept in touch and he'd send me a little bit of feedback on what he'd seen from my games in the Top 14. That sort of feedback really made me think maybe I should come back to Ireland if that's what I could be getting week in, week out, whether in the provincial system or the international system if it came about. His contact with me was part of the reason I came back.

"It's fantastic that this has come about."

Having expected his introduction in the opener to come considerably later in the piece, Farrell wasted little time in getting involved but for all his impressive work - 53 metres gained along with three linebreaks and eight tackles - it was his one-handed, behind the back pass to McGrath on the hour mark that had the crowd roaring their approval.

Six foot three, 17 stone centres aren't often known for sleight of hand - "all the slagging from us calling him a crashball merchant, he wanted to show a bit of flair" interjects Dave Kilcoyne from the adjacent chair - though Farrell admitted he was left scolding himself in spite of the audacious piece of skill.

"There wasn't much thought put into it to be honest," he said. "Jack (Carty) did unbelievably well with the space, I called for it early, he put the kick through despite the pressure he was under and fortunately it set up nicely, Luke ran a nice line and looking back on it I maybe should have stuck it on the toe for Jacob (Stockdale) going down the wing."

There's no such thing as 'no harm, no foul' in Joe Schmidt's book but, with the head coach a known fan of the 26-year-old, he's likely to get away with that one and seems set to go again against Japan.

Saturday's opponents are no strangers to an offload themselves having used the tactic to open up Russia's physical defence on more than one occasion on Friday night. While the Brave Blossoms looked beset with nerves early on in that one, Farrell expects Jamie Joseph's side to be lifted by the vocal support they are sure to receive next up in the Shizuoka Ecopa.

"I can't see it working against them," he said of the weight of expectation from a home crowd. "It's massively exciting for us to play against the home nation in their World Cup. Their support is going to be huge, ultimately we can feed off that too but I certainly can't see it working against Japan. It'll be an unbelievable event for us and them. We feel like it's another step."

For Farrell, it's already been quite the journey.

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