Evening Standard

If anyone knows about adversity in rugby, then it is Andy Farrell. Great things were expected of the rugby league star when he switched to union with Saracens in 2005 but an injury-cursed three years meant he never fulfilled those hopes.

Now part of the coaching set-up with Saracens and England Saxons, it is one of his contemporaries who is facing the pressure of living up to expectations.

The transition from player to coach has not been as smooth for Martin Johnson but then the World Cup-winning skipper has got the biggest job in English rugby.

Since Johnson became team manager in 2008, England have lacked consistency in the Six Nations and suffered some heavy home defeats against Tri-Nations teams, raising questions as to whether he is out of his depth in his first coaching role.

Farrell, though, has faith in Johnson and points to this summer’s 21-20 win over Australia. It was only Johnson’s ninth victory during 23 matches in charge but, crucially, England’s first Down Under since the World Cup triumph of 2003. And Farrell believes the success against the Wallabies augurs well for their hopes in next year’s tournament.

He says: “New Zealand will be unbelievably hard to beat. We say that all the time but with the World Cup being played in their home country they’ll rise to the occasion. But I definitely think England could win the World Cup. Look how we came back against the Wallabies drawing 1-1.

“We worry every time there’s a competition coming up but we don’t do too bad. So I think when the pressure is on, the resolve of the squad, of the people involved at that particular time with Martin Johnson and his team will come through. We’re always a side people fear when it comes to the big tournaments, there’s no doubt about that.

“As a national coach in this country, you’ll be under unbelievable scrutiny. It’s just the nature of how the English are. I’m sure that Martin Johnson over the next period of time will definitely narrow his focus and be fully ready for the World Cup.”

Farrell refuses to name which of his Saxons could make Johnson’s squad but with the finals 13 months away there is time for players to break through.

“The Saxons performed brilliantly as a team in this summer’s Churchill Cup and, after Christmas, Martin Johnson is going to allow himself a little bit of space to try and blood some of the people who have performed unbelievably well,” he says.

While Farrell accepts the England coach faces “a totally different environment” from what he has been involved in before, he adds: “Martin’s not too big to understand that he’s not done everything right. He’d be the first to acknowledge that.”

The careers of both Farrell and Johnson raise the question as to whether great players can make good coaches. Many coaches argue that the inherent selfishness of a great player prevents them from being a good coach.

But Farrell insists: “I massively disagree with that. Even as a player I always thought about the team.”

So why has Diego Maradona, the man whose genius led Argentina to football’s World Cup as a player in 1986, failed to do that as a manager in 2010?

“Because he is an individual genius and, if you asked him how to do it, he probably couldn’t explain. The difference is that I’ve always wanted to be a coach from the age of 21 when I was Great Britain captain. I’ve always written notes of what the coaches told me. It’s never been an afterthought, something that I just thought about in the last two years of my career.”

The careers of other people in the public eye are a great source of interest for Farrell. A voracious reader, he loves books in which successful people reveal how they learned from their mistakes.

For example, he’s just finished the autobiography of Chris Evans, who is now enjoying record figures as host of Radio Two’s breakfast show, 13 years after he suffered the most high-profile of sackings from Radio One.

“Evans worked unbelievably hard to get to where he wanted then had a bit of a fall but got himself back on track,” says the 35-year-old. “It shows how everybody can learn lessons.”

While many of Evans’s problems were self-inflicted, Farrell’s woes were anything but that and he puts his troubles down to “three years of bad luck”.

Typical of that was the car crash he suffered, which delayed his Saracens debut by a year.

He recalls: “I had played nine years without missing a game but soon after coming south I had the accident. I was slowing down at some temporary traffic lights and somebody hit us in the back and I had a prolapsed disc and had to have an operation.

“The injuries were almost laughable in the end. I played against Tonga in the 2007 World Cup [scoring his only try for England] and got selected for the quarter-final against Australia. I trained all week, felt really good and I pulled my calf in the five minutes before the start and that was that.”

The match against Tonga saw him earn the last of his eight England caps and, despite his frustrations in the

15-a-side game, he does not regret the move.

“Coming to union was an unbelievable experience and coaching at Saracens is a job that I love,” he says. “I read those books because I want to learn what to do to avoid a fall.”

For Farrell, the rugby league player, life was good. He was always destined to play the game, making his debut for his home-town club at the age of 16.

“I was from Wigan, that’s what Wigan people do,” he says. “Like any kid in Wigan it was my dream to play rugby league. My dad played as a junior, was involved with the Wigan Colts side, so it’s always something that’s been in my family.”

Farrell earned every possible honour in that code: the youngest player to win a Challenge Cup Final in 1993 at 17 years and 11 months; the youngest skipper of the Great Britain team at 21 years and four months; winner of five Championships and four Challenge Cups with Wigan; 3,000 points in total for the club; the Golden Boot as the best player in the world in 2004; and second in both England’s all-time goal scorers and all-time point scorers list.

Not that success came effortlessly.

“I don’t think people are naturally talented,” he says. “When players become 26, 27, they like to give the impression that they’re relaxed in what they do but mark my words, they would’ve worked unbelievably hard to get where they’ve got. Nobody gets anywhere in life without hard work.”

For Farrell the work was all the harder as rugby league then was not fully professional. “When I started I worked as an apprentice joiner for two and a half years for Wigan Council, on £30 a week. I used to go into training at six o’clock in the morning before work and then straight from work to training again. Then in 1990 I heard that Wigan were going to go full-time professional and I trained extra hard to make sure I was part of that.”

And, for all his great triumphs, his most precious moment came with victory in Australia when Wigan beat Brisbane Broncos in the 1994 World Club Challenge.

“We had won every trophy in the domestic league and they were as dominant as Wigan,” he recalls. “The Aussie press were negative and they were super confident. But we beat them in front of a full house of 60,000 in their own back yard and the moment I will not forget is the final whistle!”

That victory was special, says Farrell, who adds: “I was only a kid and at that age you just go out and play. As you get older, you complicate things in your head.” Now he is trying to impart his knowledge on the Saracens squad as they prepare for the new campaign.

During his first season as skills coach, the club came within a whisker of being crowned champions for the first time and Farrell is optimistic they can go one better.

Last term the club, and in particular director of rugby Brendan Venter, ran into disciplinary problems with Twickenham but Farrell says: “We want to be liked for the right reasons, try to be innovative and want to grow the game as much as the RFU.

“Last year we started with a brand new team — 14 new players — and were three minutes off winning the Guinness Premiership Final that we had not been to before. We dropped a kick-off and missed a tackle and Leicester scored!

“This year we started pre-season with the majority of the side the same and five or six new signings: Richard Wigglesworth at scrum-half, David Strettle on the wing and Kelly Brown and Deon Carstens, all international players.

“We’ve added nothing but class and are way ahead of where we were this time last year. At Saracens, we want to win every game and the belief is massive this year.”

Farrell adds that captain Steve Borthwick “will be fired up to prove his worth within the international set-up” having been dropped to the Saxons squad after two years as England skipper.

Farrell believes that coaching is “about managing people, making sure you give players the right information so they’re hungry to fight for one another and they enjoy turning up for work.”

But, even as he plans to keep his Saracens players happy, he looks back on an Australian offer that could have changed his life.

“It was with Canterbury at Bankstown in 2000,” he says. “Australia had the best rugby league in the world and I wanted to go and challenge myself out there. But I had a young family. A house we wanted came up for auction and Wigan offered me a six-year deal.

“I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened if I’d gone. But then I wouldn’t have come to rugby union, wouldn’t have gone to the World Cup, wouldn’t have met new people down south and experienced a whole different way of life that’s broadened my horizons.”


Share |


Follow me on twitter

Home | About | Books | History | BroadcastingJournalismPublic Speaking | Contact | Website development by Pedalo