Chris Farrell reaping rewards of brave decision to take road less travelled
The big man arrives after a rehab session and helps us to move some chairs and tables for his interview.
We are a week out from Christmas and Chris Farrell is nearing a comeback for Munster. He is eyeing the Connacht game in early January as the visit of Leinster to Thomond Park is looking to be a match too soon.
We are down in Limerick to record interviews for Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby. Former Munster centre Barry Murphy has just spent an entertaining 20 minutes with JJ Hanrahan and we move from the High Performance Centre to the U.L Sports Bar. We are setting up a spot in the corner of the bar when Farrell, all 6-foot-5 of him, ducks through the door.
The Tyrone native pitches right in and takes his seat opposite Murphy for his interview. Cameras on or off, Farrell is as laid-back and unflustered as they come. Ice in the veins.
He jokes about Munster players, going for their coffees and afternoon snacks, are a common sight around Limerick. Former Munster player Barry O'Mahony thought he'd go for a quiet bite to eat at La Cucina one afternoon, after getting back from a break away, only to bump into a clatter of the current squad. "You can't avoid us... the people of Castletroy are desensitised to us as we're about so often."
Farrell is well travelled too. By the time he was 24, he had played for Ulster, made over 90 appearances in France with Grenoble and returned to Ireland, at the urging of Joe Schmidt, to join Munster. He made his Ireland debut two months after his first outing for Munster and was a Six Nations winner the day after he turned 25.
He was man-of-the-match in his one appearance in that championship, against Wales, and was recovering from a knee injury. He watched Ireland claim their third ever Grand Slam from Limerick but was invited up to the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin to help carry on the celebrations that had started in London. He comments:
"I was worried about what it would be like. Thinking, 'Ach, I don't want to be walking into the Shelbourne after only having one game to play'. I was nervous about it and was feeling that this may not be my place, but it was perfect.
"All the management came up and everybody had been texting me to say, 'You had your part to play' and 'Make sure you enjoy your celebrations'.
"And even Sunday morning, when they were still in London, I got a text message from Peter O'Mahony saying, 'Well done. Congratulations'."
Ireland are in an uphill battle to retain their Guinness Six Nations title after losing their opener to England. Farrell came into the team for the 22-13 victory over Scotland, at Murrayfield, and was retained at No.13 for the trip to Italy. For a lad that risked so much by travelling to France at the age of 21, picking up another cap for Ireland is further justification that he made the right move.
"A lot of people go on about that move [to Grenoble] being massive but at the time, for me, it didn't feel like a big decision," he says. "I wasn't where I wanted to be at that stage. I had first played for Ulster when I was really young, 18, and had a couple of games that went well.
"I ended up getting struck down by a couple of injuries that ended up being long-term. I certainly put a bit of pressure to be in a better place at that stage than I was. So I decided it was best for me to get away from that environment and all that pressure that I put on myself."
Three seasons with Bernard Jackman's Grenoble, all in the Top 14, saw Farrell excel. Along withJonathan Wisniewski, Farrell was one of their stand-out players and he formed a handy midfield partnership with Nigel Hunt. Farrell (from 33:00 below) spoke very well on his preference for outside centre and his memorable experiences in France.
Hailing from Fivemiletown, Farrell started playing for Clogher Valley RFC and soon came to the attention of those at Ulster Rugby. At the age of 16 and 17, he had the likes of Jonny Bell, Niall Malone and Gary Longwell driving over from Belfast to Farrell's hometown to get him ready for the step-up.
"During the week, after school and during lunch breaks, I'd be on my own in the hall doing skills with those guys. There might have been two of them there so I got through a lot of skill work... That was what then influenced me to go to Campbell College, where I boarded, for my last year of school. I got a lot more exposure to those lads when I was in school in Belfast."
Campbell College won the Ulster Schools Senior Cup with Farrell in their team and he was called into Ireland's U20 squad in the same season he made his senior Ulster debut. He was going places fast until injuries intervened. Before he opted for France, he mulled a move to Connacht and, for the first time, Munster but he wanted to get away.
He wanted to get his body right and play week to week, not get his minutes measured - with all the best intentions - by those in the Irish set-up. Bernard Jackman and Mike Prendergast gave him that and placed their full faith in him. Farrell rewarded the Irish coaches.
During his stint in Grenoble, a quaint town at the foot of the Alps, Farrell recalls sun-bathing and skiing all in the one day. It is hard to imagine any current Ireland internationals getting the green light for some afternoon skiing but France is a different prospect.
"It was one of those things where the president of the club wanted you to send him an email if you want to go skiing, and he would say yes or no. It would probably depend on what injuries there were in your position or what games were coming up, but never ever said no to me.
"We used to go on squad trips up the ski slopes. We were sponsored by Alpe d'Huez, the ski resort, and we used to go up on weekends off."
The glacial lakes in the region gave Farrell an opportunity, and setting, to try out the Wim Hof breathing techniques (a repeated cycle of big inhalations followed by brief periods of holding one's breath) that many attest to. An Australian friend put the big centre onto it and he recalls the pair 'smashing a frozen lake' open, jumping in and lasting two minutes in the sub-zero temperatures.
Grenoble would train early in the morning and try to get their on-pitch work done before midday, when the sun would do its worst. Many in the squad, Farrell included, would jump in cars and head up to the clear-water mountains lakes to pitch themselves in and cool down.
It must have been a wrench to leave but a few conversations with Schmidt, and friends and family back home, swayed him and he swapped the Alps for the Treaty County. He bought into the idea that Munster were a team on the up, and he backed himself to break into an Ireland team that (when the deal was agreed) had accounted for New Zealand at Soldier Field.
"Whenever I was in France I had a bit of contact from Joe (Schmidt) and there was times that, midweek, I’d receive a text message from him and it would be, sort of, times in games from the weekend past – were I had done something and I could have done better, or something I had did well and he just wanted to highlight it.
"So we kept in touch a bit. Not a massive amount, but he certainly let me know that he was watching, and that was great for me as well."
Many Irish fans would suggest Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are Schmidt's first-choice centres. Try telling that to the omni-present Bundee Aki, though. Try telling that to Farrell while you are at it.
"Look," he says, "I certainly hope I’m the sort of centre that he’s looking for."
"Joe has done so much for Irish rugby and for the country," Farrell adds. "The scenes in Dublin around November and the way rugby has kicked on when he has been in charge is phenomenal. Ireland, on the whole, owes a lot to him."
Interview over, Farrell helps shift a few tables and chairs before heading back to the HPC. He will be back soon and he hopes his knee will hold up so he can back up his words, and belief, in 2019.
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