In a somewhat distinguished cross-code career, Andy Farrell won 370 appearances for Wigan from 1991-2004 and scored 3,135 points, comprising 111 tries, 1,336 successful place kicks and 19 drop goals, before converting to union and representing England eight times. But boasting isn’t in Faz’s dictionary. While he carries an aura of having accomplished so much, he remains unassuming.
Ahead of the QBE Internationals, when England face three mighty southern hemisphere opponents on consecutive weekends in November, Take The Three caught up with the softly-spoken 38-year old Lancastrian to get his thoughts on the series and other rugby league converts.
TTT: Andy, let’s go back to your roots and talk about rugby league first. The big cross-code conversation at the moment is Joel Tomkins. Was he ready to come across?
AF: He was super keen for it to happen and that showed in his determination to make it through to the [EPS] squad as quickly as he has done. His thirst to get to this level is one of the reasons that Saracens brought him over in the first place.
TTT: What will have been the hardest part of the transition?
AF: I’d imagine it’s a bit frustrating for Joel to realise that you can’t always bring what he brings in rugby league, when you’re guaranteed ball, into a game of rugby union.
The hardest thing about coming from league to union is, especially when you’re an influential player who likes to get hands on the ball and have an impact on the game, that you don’t always get that opportunity in union. Everybody goes into the game wanting to show what they can do with ball in hand because that’s what they think people are going to judge them on.
TTT: Where has his union game improved?
AF: Where he has improved massively is realising there’s a lot more of his game that he’s going to get judged on in union; every single aspect of his game.
TTT: Can you give us an example?
AF: His breakdown work, which was completely alien to him, and his decision making at the breakdown in attack and defence. How he has an impact on the game isn’t just about ball in hand.
Also, he was looking to offload the ball all the time at the beginning of last year and being selective about whether he needs to offload or not has been part of his decision making in union. So he’s getting now that there’s a lot of ways to perform well on a rugby union field that’s different to league.
TTT: How have Saracens helped in the process?
AF: What Saracens have done particularly well with Joel is that they’ve been very selective in getting crucial areas of his game right. He wouldn’t have made the transition if he didn’t believe in his own ability but it takes time on the training field and on the field itself and going through all the permutations in your head, highlighting things. You have to be careful about pilling so much information into someone that he ends up not achieving anything.
TTT: What were your own experiences of moving to union?
AF: For me it was different because I was injured for a year and you may think that’s good in that you can analyse the game but there’s nothing like actually getting out there and learning from your mistakes. Joel’s had a few by his own admissions but he’s learning quickly.
TTT: Another league convert is Chris Ashton. What did you make of his dip in performance and is he on the way back to form?
AF: Chris Ashton has dealt with [a dip in performance] superbly well. First and foremost he’s got to realise that the reason the scrutiny is on him is that he’s done so well in the past. Everyone has a slight slump and being able to analyse that and stop going right down to the bottom is what he’s done. There are a lot of things that have improved in his game but the main thing is his intent. You can see the fire and the hunger back in him to get on with it without making any excuses. He’s letting his rugby do the talking.
TTT: Does he remain an attacking threat?
AF: Without a shadow of a doubt. We talked about Joel and realising there are other aspects of the game where you can have an impact and it’s the same for Chris but his x-factor is still his ability to score tries and be in the right place at the right time. Whenever there’s a break he’s there.
TTT: Staying with Saracens, how has Billy Vunipola been an influence?
AF: One of the aspects of Saracens’ play this year is their ability to score tries. That has come off the back of great go-forward and Mako and Billy Vunipola have definitely been at the heart of that. No back can play with front foot ball unless the forwards do their jobs and the amount of carrying that both of them have done has been great to see. With Billy I don’t think we’ve seen anything like what he can do. The kid’s got great hands and skill and is such a force going forward that he’s sucking in two or three guys every time. He has the ability to adapt his game as well, which is exciting.
TTT: What should England be taking from the final stages of the Rugby Championship as they head into the QBE Internationals?
AF: In that last game [NZ v SA] New Zealand were calm and composed when South Africa got three tries. They stayed in the game, took everything that was coming, waited for South Africa to make a few mistakes and were clinical on the back of it.
South Africa played a different way to how they usually play and when you train a certain way all week, it’s very hard to change that mindset. When South Africa carried on playing as if they needed another four tries New Zealand took advantage. The game became very open and there was only going to be one winner in the end.
TTT: Can England reach New Zealand’s level?
AF: I think they can and it’s definitely the way we want them to be going as a coaching group. What shines out in the New Zealand mentality is their calmness and ability to execute their plan under pressure. No matter what the hype of the game is, they see how the game is flowing on the field and adjust, not playing one particular style. They’re the most composed which leads to accuracy and scoring tries and they‘ve been playing together for a long time now.
TTT: When you’re in the England camp will you talk about the Wales match in the 6 Nations?
AF: Look, you can analyse it and break it down to many areas but the reality is the bigger picture stuff – Wales played outstandingly well on the day when it mattered. Does that mean we’re a poor team of the back of it? Does it heck! Take Wales’ game against Ireland at the start of that 6 Nations. They were under awful pressure and came back from that and played well. Look at Wales’ performance through the autumn as well. We know they’re a great side and they were able to turn that around and win when it mattered.
TTT: What do you and the players who were involved take from having being on a Lions tour?
AF: The exciting thing for us as an English team was that we had a large contingent, particularly at the end. A small number of them had leading roles and I think we will benefit in the short, medium and long-term more than any other nation. We’ve got the most improving to do because we’re young. We had lads on that Lions tour that had 10 caps and they were getting to analyse and see how it’s done by other players with 60, 70 or 100 caps. The thirst from our players to have those leading roles in four years time was massively evident and we can only benefit from seeing them bring that onto the training field and the playing field.
TTT: How do you convince the players that didn’t tour they’re good enough for England when they weren’t good enough for Lions?
AF: You don’t have a difficult job at all because at this level the players are their own worst critics anyway. They want to be the best players they can possibly be. Selection is always governed by what they’re good at, what they can bring and what they need to improve on and players are fully aware of that. That’s part of the reason it’s exciting for us over the next few years.