- Andy Farrell's first interview since returning to England permanent basis
- Former Sarancens man on why he came back, defence in SA and Mike Catt
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As Andy Farrell’s unerring career at the pinnacle of rugby shows, he is not a man who tends toward indecision or U-turns. So, after returning to his club after the 2012 RBS 6 Nations, what was it that made the former Saracens man rejoin Stuart Lancaster’s England coaching group on a permanent basis three months ago.
Winning five Championships and four Challenge Cups as part of the Wigan dynasty from the 1990s, Farrell rapidly became one of the most successful rugby league players in history: youngest Challenge Cup winner ever in 1993; a full international by 18 one season later; and in 1996, at the age of 21, the youngest ever skipper of a Great Britain side.
While the 37-year-old’s injury ravaged time in rugby union was not so trophy-laden, eight of his 36 senior appearances were for England, with three at Rugby World Cup 2007. Indicative of a man who quickly reaches the top and then stays there, his secondment from Saracens to England put him on a familiar trajectory.
“The main point was having the opportunity to work with the best English players in the country and coaching them against the best teams in the world is a tremendous challenge,” said Farrell, who had been coaching at Vicarage Road since April 2009.
“And with the feeling that we generated through the Six Nations, you could see that this is the start of something special for English Rugby. It’s the start of a young group who are going to grow and build together and we definitely believe there are going to be good times ahead.
“The bond and belief we created in such a short space of time and the unity of the group together was special, concentrating on the culture and making sure that people understood what playing for England was all about.
“We feel we’ve touched on the right things as far as togetherness, culture and commitment and that’s there for all to see. There are dynamics that need to move forwards – we need to keep those exactly where they are and make sure we build where the fine detail of the game is concerned and look for the one per cent margins that make a difference at the top level.”
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Farrell leads on defence in England’s coaching team and shutting down teams was a source of pride during the Six Nations, with only four tries conceded on the way to four wins from five and, historically,three away from home.
In contrast, England conceded four in one game on the summer tour – the 36-27 second Test defeat at Ellis Park – but Farrell is positive that England progressed through the series and points out that South Africa, in South Africa, is a different animal to control.
“Our defence was very committed and very enthusiastic,” he said. “The South African beast tends to be a lot bigger, a lot more direct and I thought it took time to deal with that. By the time the third Test came the attitude was there for all to see and from minute one you could see the game was never going to be lost by England and the defence was at the heart of that.”
Farrell believes England’s young team thrived on the atmosphere of playing rugby in a country where the game is tantamount to a religion and can approach the southern hemisphere challenges in this autumn’s QBE Internationals with gusto.
Helping devise the plan to defeat Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand alongside Farrell, Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree is Mike Catt, who joined as permanent Attacking Skills Coach on September 7.
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Farrell became close friends with Catt at the 2007 Rugby World Cup and sees parallels between their routes into coaching. And discussing the way England’s coaching set-up works, Farrell gives an insight into why he thinks Catt will fit in.
He added: “We played the end of our careers together for England at the 2007 World Cup – we got on like a house on fire then and had a great time together. We then both retired and went into coaching straightaway, we’ve both had exciting, young coaching careers so far and we’re both very driven to be as successful as we can be as coaches.
“The key to any coaching group is that you’re tight and get on really well – we’re very fortunate that is the case for the four of us.
“One of the main reasons Mike and I both wanted to take this job is that this environment allows you to coach rugby, the game is one as a whole. To pigeonhole a coach in one area is not only not good for the team, but it’s restrictive for you as a coach.
“If you’ve got an opinion on how you should coach or how you should implement something for the whole of the game, in this environment we’re able to share it and put forward plans together. It’s pretty powerful when that comes together because you get everyone looking at the bigger picture of England doing well, winning and performing, rather than just looking after your own back.”