From ‘hurt arena’ to ‘cultural architect,’ Andy Farrell was destined to lead the Lions

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The announcement of Andy Farrell as British & Irish Lions coach on Thursday has already set the bar high for this year as being the least surprising bit of news in rugby. The Lions committee said it took six months or so of vigorous analysis to narrow the candidates for head coach down to Farrell. Surely, it can’t have taken that long. He’s long been by far the standout man to lead the Lions to Australia next year.

But for those whose memories of Farrell in a Lions role drift back to that speech he made as defence coach in 2013 and how he challenged the players to take Australia to the “hurt arena” because “there is no tomorrow,” don’t expect the same thing this time around when he leads the famous tourists to Australia in 2025.

“I’ve probably grown up a little bit since then — I’m probably not as dramatic!” Farrell said on Thursday. “There won’t be any film star roles from me, just being myself and making sure that the team comes first.”

He’s a little embarrassed by that now, 11 years on, but he’s a man who doesn’t waste words. He takes on the top Lions role with the reputation as one of the finest coaches in world rugby, as the man who has regenerated this Ireland side and made them one of the most formidable teams on the planet. Those who picked him labelled him a “cultural architect.” They praised his ability to forge unity, and his technical acumen. But when asked to sum up exactly what the Lions are getting with Farrell as head coach, he replied: “My coaching style is what it is. It’s me being myself.” Talk is cheap.

The long-predicted confirmation of Farrell as Lions coach kickstarts the countdown to next year’s tour. Whenever these sorts of announcements are made with the Lions, it’s impossible to escape all-encompassing nostalgia. Next year will be the Lions’ 137th birthday. There in the room on Thursday at the top of the main sponsors Howden’s central London building were reminders of Lions tours past.

Sir Ian McGeechan was in attendance, ducking in embarrassment when he was called “Mr Lions” by Farrell. Also present were Jason Leonard, Gavin Hastings, Geordan Murphy, Ugo Monye and Ieuan Evans, who is chairperson for this trip Down Under. That’s 17 tours between them as players and coach (McGeechan was head coach four times, assistant coach once), spanning 50 years between those sitting there watching Farrell being anointed. “I don’t feel the pressure of it. I feel the excitement of it because I know how it does feel,” Farrell said. “Of course, you are fighting to be a successful as you possibly can be, but I don’t feel the pressure of it.”

Farrell’s elevation to Lions head coach is testament to his ability, diligence and the esteem in which he is held by those in the sport. His first involvement with the Lions was back in 2013 when he was defence coach for that trip to Australia, it came just two years after he was appointed England defence coach. There he made his famous “hurt arena” speech as he helped Gatland’s Lions to a 2-1 win. “He took a big punt on me in 2013,” Farrell said of Gatland, saying he was still inexperienced.

He left England after the 2015 World Cup and took up the Ireland defence coach role. He was part of the 2017 team again under Gatland for their 1-1 series draw against the All Blacks but then missed out in 2021 for the South Africa tour, one the Lions lost 2-1. He knows what it takes to be part of a successful Lions tour, but it was his record with Ireland which tipped the scales overwhelmingly in his favour.

He took over the top job in Ireland after the 2019 World Cup, replacing Joe Schmidt who could be the next Wallabies coach. He led Ireland to a historic 2-1 series victory in New Zealand in 2022, and to the No. 1 spot in the rankings. He masterminded their 2023 Six Nations Grand Slam, and they headed into last year’s men’s World Cup as one of the favourites, only to run into an inspired All Blacks side in the quarterfinal.

His reflections now — three months after that exit — are still raw, but also compelling, laying bare the competitiveness and desire to win which runs through his veins. “It can’t just but down to fine margins or the bounce of a ball, or luck,” Farrell said. “You’ve got to cover more bases than that and have to fight harder to make sure you’re successful. After the final whistle there’s nothing bittersweet about it… It’s not bitter, you just learn.”

Farrell will start his Lions duties officially in December, having guided Ireland through the Six Nations, summer tour of South Africa and end-of-year internationals, but he’s already had half an eye on potential tour candidates. “What selection always is in my mind is that you are always aware of all that cards you could be dealt and then you pick something in your mind the whole time but you stay open minded enough for that to change. My way would be to constantly play devil’s advocate and throw things out and ask the right questions and see how that galvanises together and fits as a group. That process will be starting in here from today.”

There are various steps ahead of Farrell, boxes to tick. He’ll name his assistant coaches early next year. “I’m in no rush at all,” Farrell said. “There’s a long way to go isn’t there? There’s a lot of coaches just starting in new roles. Some people will get better as coaches under pressure, so I’ll just sit back and watch.”

The squad is normally named a couple of months out from the tour, along with the captain. “He has to be a bit of everything doesn’t he? He has to be genuine and he has to be the type of person that will not just show by his actions, but show that he cares and has all of the things that special captains of Lions tours in the past have had, if not even more so.”

What differs this tour from recent ones is player availability. In November 2023, the Lions announced a new strategic partnership with the Gallagher Premiership and United Rugby Championship which due to the odd scheduling rejig, means players will be available for the entirety of the tour, including the match against Argentina in Dublin on June 20, 2025. This is a huge boost for Farrell in what is usually a rushed exercise in readying a team.

But one group of players he won’t have that same time with are those in France in the Top 14. If one touring candidate’s team makes the Top 14 final next year, it will likely clash with the start of the tour. Despite this, Farrell will keep a close eye on form over the Channel.

Which brings us to Owen Farrell, the man who led England to the World Cup semifinal in 2023 but has since stepped back from Test rugby and is now linked with an end of season move to Racing 92 in France. When asked for his thoughts on Owen’s decision to step away from England duty, Andy Farrell — Owen’s father — said: “It’s his choice. He does what he thinks is right for him in that moment in time. You can’t go wrong in that regard, can you?”

Awaiting them next year will be the Wallabies, who are currently without a head coach after Eddie Jones left in November after their group stage exit from the World Cup. Despite their poor form, and recent troubles, Farrell is expecting them to get their house in order by the time the tour ticks around.

“It’s a fact that they will,” Farrell said. “It’s the pinnacle for them as a rugby-playing nation. It’s the same for them as it is for us. They will 100% get this right. We all know that deep down. We’re all looking at it as, you know when someone is wounded then people get their heads together to get things right. It’s not just huge for Australian rugby, it’s huge for the country and what the Lions will bring, so they 100% will get it right.”

Farrell’s challenge is to get his side of the bargain 100% right. First, it’s back to the day job, and coaching Ireland into the Six Nations. There they’ll be expecting to retain the Grand Slam — that’s the Farrell benchmark, and nothing else will do. But with every Test match, every competition and eye-catching performance, Farrell’s Lions squad will be taking shape.

“This means the world to me. To be thought of as a candidate for the head coach’s role is pretty special but to be chosen is pretty magical. For those of us who have been lucky enough to go on a Lions tour, or go as a supporter, knowing what the Lions stand for, we all know how special this is,” Farrell said. “So for me to be chosen as the head coach, it’s beyond words to be honest.”

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