Exclusive interview: Andy Farrell shows the true mark of the warrior

On the eve of a crunch visit to Dublin, England's backs coach tells Chris Hewett what makes winners is the fight they have inside – and that there's plenty of that in his son Owen and the rest of the squad

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The Independent Online

The straight-line distance from Twickenham to Dublin is something under 300 miles, but to generations of England rugby players the Irish capital has felt like the end of the world at best and the bottom circle of hell at worst. Some of the finest red-rose performers of the last 30 years have seen their Lions ambitions scuppered during the course of a rough afternoon in leafy Lansdowne Road: ask the grand old Leicester hooker Peter Wheeler, or the venerable Wasps prop Jeff Probyn. Others, including several in the current team, have entered the Fair City dreaming of a Grand Slam and left it with plenty of nothing.

Perhaps the most tormented of recent England vintages was the 2007 side, who had the profound misfortune to be the first of their kind ever to play at Croke Park, the greatest of Gaelic Games cathedrals and a shrine to 14 victims of an indiscriminate shooting raid by police and former British soldiers in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence. The emotional swirl of the occasion rendered the match virtually unwinnable for Phil Vickery's visitors, but they did not expect to find themselves on the excruciating end of a record 43-13 defeat.

There were some very experienced players in that side – seven members of the 2003 World Cup-winning squad in the starting line-up, an eighth on the bench – yet many of them disappeared without trace in the course of what amounted to a capitulation. One man who did not disappear was a newcomer, winning only his third cap. His name? Andy Farrell.

"Everything was wrong about that game," recalls Brian Ashton, then in the early stages of an 18-month stint as England's head coach, "but everything was right about Andy. Here was an individual of real character who was capable of showing his qualities as a leader – his qualities as a man – in a situation of the greatest sporting adversity. On that day in Dublin, he was one of those who didn't crack.

"Not that I was surprised. I'd followed his career in rugby league and seen what he was made of. I suppose he might have been a little over the top playing-wise when he switched across to union but he was plainly someone who relished pressure. I remember him coming into camp for the build-up to that Six Nations. We had only two or three days to play with in those days and he was still uncapped, but he was hugely influential in setting the tone. He may have been new but when he spoke, players with hundreds of caps between them were prepared to sit there and listen."

Farrell has long since crossed the second of rugby's great divides, from playing to coaching, and as the men who now hang on his every word have comparatively few caps between them – last weekend, the Scotland replacements had more international experience than England had in their starting formation – his mastery of what might be called the inspirational arts is central to the development of the national team. By some form of wizardry or other, he prepares players for the big occasion by ensuring they grow to their fullest size.

"Yes, I remember Croke Park all too well," he says following a last selection meeting with his fellow coaches – Stuart Lancaster, Graham Rowntree, Mike Catt – ahead of this weekend's return to Dublin for another game certain to be played at a high emotional pitch. "It had been obvious all week that it would be a different kind of contest, what with all the history surrounding the venue. The Irish guys had clearly worked themselves up into a state, not just to perform well but to do battle, and the match was pretty much over by half-time.

"But that's when it counts, isn't it? That's when it's important to perform. I was still new to the side and I felt it was up to me to put my best foot forward. When things are against you and your team, you at least want to try to make something happen. You want to be true to yourself, more than anything – to be able to wake up the following morning feeling that you gave everything you had to give. I'd been through it before in my rugby league career: there had been some pretty hard days, particularly against the great Australian sides, so even though I'd played very little international union, I knew what questions tended to be asked when the circumstances were at their most challenging.

"Now I'm a coach, I'm always telling players that it's not the true mark of a warrior to make an impact when you're 20 points up. The mark of the warrior is to do it when you're swimming against the tide, or when the scores are level 10 minutes from time. Who'll be the one to make the difference, to turn things around or break the deadlock? That's the thing. All the great players I've played with or against, in either code of rugby, have had the ability to do that. It's the common denominator where greatness is concerned.

"And the thing I really love about what I see in this England side is that we have a team of people with that special spirit about them. I really believe we do. There's no one in the group who will sit back, thinking that somebody else will do the necessary for him. There may be players like that all over the world, but they aren't in this England squad.

"Test rugby isn't just about having better skills than everyone else, about being stronger or faster. You want to make use of whatever advantages you might have, of course you do, but what really counts at a level of sport where virtually everyone is unusually skilful or strong or fast is the fight inside of you, the will to win in a war of attrition, which is pretty much what we're talking about when it comes to international rugby.

"When we've gone behind in games over the last year or so, that's what we've shown: fight and willpower. It's why we've never been on the end of a hiding. The love of the shirt has spared us that. In almost all our matches, we've finished the stronger. That tells you something. We pride ourselves on it."

Just as he and his colleagues in the think-tank, brought together with great care by head coach Lancaster, pride themselves on the closeness and maturity of their working relationship. It is an interesting mix: Farrell, Rowntree and Catt all enjoyed rewarding careers in international rugby of one kind or another, while the boss finished his playing career a couple of rungs short on the representative ladder. In some set-ups, that might prove awkward, but not in this England environment.

While Farrell does not believe for a second that a stellar Test career is a prerequisite for a successful transition into coaching – "You don't have to come from a background like mine; we've just added Matt Parker to the staff and he'll contribute very strongly, even though he's spent his life in cycling and has no rugby links at all" – he agrees that his first-hand knowledge, his "been there and done it" side, is an aid to effective communication.

He is, however, far more interested in the flow of ideas between the front-line coaches. "We're very close-knit," he says. "Why? Because we have a shared sense of responsibility. Also, there's a complete absence of territorialism. I might major on defence but I have an opinion on everything and, in the culture Stuart has developed, I'm able to express it without someone feeling I'm treading on his toes. We all feel able to say what we think, on subjects across the board. Nobody is pigeon-holed. No one gets uptight. It's brilliant."

Which leads us to the obvious subject: a topic Farrell would rather not discuss at any length, for the most honourable of reasons, but one that falls squarely into the "unavoidable" category. When he talks of the "warrior" spirit, it is difficult – barely possible, in fact – not to see his son Owen, the current England outside-half, as the very personification of the phrase. As tough as old boots physically, there is also something merciless about him, a chill air of severity about his rugby that distinguishes him from his peers. Someone should paint some black stripes on his cheek, using an animal bone for a brush.

"One thing that has always pleased me with Owen," Farrell the father says, politely declining to compare family talents to any meaningful degree, "is that he definitely has my willingness to do the extra session, to work that little bit harder to make the small improvement. If you have that in your make-up, you can be a winner. I've been lucky with him, I think. I never had to drag him along to anything: he always wanted to be around rugby, and to watch and learn for himself. It's never been a matter of me dictating to him, no 'do this' or 'do that'."

And when his goal-kicking exploits finally surpass those of his father? What then? "I have my excuse ready," he replies. "I'll tell him: 'Son, they give you three points in union for doing things that are worth only two in league.' Simple."