Andy Farrell got to experience what it felt like to cheer on son Owen as a father for the first time since his retirement, with the Ireland head coach opening up on the emotions that surround the Farrell family on game day.
Farrell will look to lead Ireland to a third consecutive Six Nations victory next Sunday when they travel to Twickenham to take on an England side captained by his son. The rivalry is not unfamiliar for the pair, with Farrell Snr taking up a role as Ireland’s defence coach in 2016 under Joe Schmidt before replacing the New Zealander in the top job following last year’s Rugby World Cup.
But it was at that tournament, where Ireland were dumped out by New Zealand in the quarter-finals, that Farrell was finally able to do something that he had not experienced since hanging up his boots, and that was to watch his son play at the highest level of the game without having to scrutinise, coach or assess his performance and simply support from a paternal point of view.
With England beating the All Blacks with one of their greatest ever performances to reach the final in Japan, Farrell was able to experience matchday both as a fan and a father, which he admitted sent the “nerves through the roof” in a way that he never experiences when in his coaching capacity.
“Now that was tough, I was back to being a parent again and that’s tougher than being a coach against your son,” Farrell said. “I actually did the whole fan-family thing that day on purpose, to get back to how it felt before all this ever happened.
“I went on the train with all the fans, enjoyed the atmosphere before the game, understood what it meant for my wife and the kids, and the nerves were through the roof. You want your son to perform, don’t you? When you’re a coach, you don’t feel like that. You’re assessing things, seeing how the plan is coming together, you’re busy and you’ve got a distraction.”
Since retiring from Saracens duty in 2009 and joining the club’s coaching set-up, Farrell has either been in charge of his son or against him. Andy helped coach Owen through his early days at Saracens, and the pair both made firsts in the 2012 Six Nations, where Farrell Snr started his international coaching career as Stuart Lancaster’s defence coach and Farrell Jnr made his first for his country in the same game. The two would work together throughout the four-year World Cup cycle as well as on the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia, but the relationship was very much between coach and player, not father and son, despite certain accusations from others around the camp.
Farrell was sacked as England defence coach when Eddie Jones took over at the start of 2016, allowing the former rugby league star to move across the Irish Sea and join Schmidt’s set-up later that year. The move was a surprise considering the close proximity that Jones worked with Farrell during their time together at Saracens.
“Mark Sinderberry was the CEO at Saracens,” Jones said on Thursday. “He’d been my CEO at Brumbies, he rang me up and said ‘What do you think?’
“I’d seen (Farrell) play rugby league, I thought ‘Yeah, sign him’. Then, by a number of circumstances, I ended up over there (as Saracens coach). He was unfortunately injured and we got him to start coaching. I saw a guy who was really focused on being his best, whether as a player or coach.”
Owen Farrell has been keen to forge his own path out of his father’s hulking shadow, which if anything has only made the similarities between the pair even more obvious such was his father’s leadership abilities and resolute confidence. But the relationship between the two has often appeared an odd one, given the professionalism they have to let take control what remains of their father-son bond.
For instance, will they talk in the week leading up to the Six Nations clash next Sunday? “Probably, yeah,” said Andy. “What about? I don’t know. It certainly won’t be about our tactics. And it certainly won’t be about his, so ...
“It’s as professional as it gets, because that’s all we’ve ever known, with Owen being a professional and me being a professional coach. It’s never been any different. I’m proud of the situation, as a father and him a son, I’m proud of how it is handled because it is one of utmost respect, but of professionalism first and foremost.”
Jones sees plenty of those traits in his current England captain, adding “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, but perhaps the ones who see the good and the bad of their rugby relationship are those closest to them: the rest of their family.
“The hardest part is certainly for Colleen (Andy’s wife, Owen’s mum), 100 per cent,” Farrell Snr said. “And for Owen’s sisters (Elleshia and Gracie), and the young fella, Gabriel (Owen’s brother).
“It’s weird for them, they’ve got unbelievably mixed emotions, they’re only human. How do they try and come to terms with it? I suppose they hope that both sides do well. And that’s not going to happen. So it’s a difficult one for them.”