Ireland rugby coach Andy Farrell was walking along a line of team captains at the Six Nations tournament launch in January, shaking hands with each of them, when he came face to face with the man leading England.
It just so happened to be his son, Owen, who kept his arms folded and maintained a poker face.
As well as being thoroughly awkward, it spoke volumes about the competitiveness oozing out of one of the big rugby families of the modern era.
And the intensity might have gone up a level this week, with Farrell senior and junior set to go head-to-head in the most high-profile match of the third round in the Six Nations this weekend.
Farrell’s Ireland takes on Farrell’s England at Twickenham on Sunday, the first time a coach has led a team into a Six Nations match against a team captained by his son.
“Well, honestly, yeah, it is weird,” Andy said.
Just like it felt a bit weird when Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers coached his team in an NBA game against the Houston Rockets, whose shooting guard is his son, Austin. Especially when Austin called for a technical foul against his dad, who was furiously protesting with officials at one stage in a match in November. Doc was ejected — much to the hilarity of Austin, who played to the crowd by beginning a celebration.
The relationship between the Farrells seems more serious, more business-like.
“You know what, I am proud of the situation, I am,” Andy said. “As far as a father and him as a son, I am proud of how it is handled because it is one of the utmost respect, but of professionalism, first and foremost.”
It is the latest chapter in their fascinating rugby relationship, which had its origins when Andy was a superstar player for Wigan in rugby league around the turn of the century and then a rare cross-code switcher at Saracens in rugby union from 2005-09. Owen, born when Andy was 16, was often spotted hanging around the team environment and it quickly became clear he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Owen ended up playing for Saracens, making his debut in 2008 as a replacement in a preseason game. Who did he come on for? Yep, his dad, who had gotten injured.
Andy retired in 2009, having briefly played for England in the 15-man code, and went on to work as assistant coach at Saracens, then in the technical staff with the national team as defense coach from 2011-15 — just when Owen was blossoming in the squad as a player.
Owen would never call Andy “dad” in training sessions or around the England squad. Apparently, they never shared rides home or purposely sat together to eat.
Teammates. Then colleagues. Then rivals, when Andy joined Ireland — also as defense coach — in 2016 and tried to get the better of his son in matches against England, which by now had Owen as a central figure.
The score is currently 2-2.
“Every time we’ve played Ireland since my dad’s been there, I’ve been asked questions about that,” Owen said after leading England to victory over Scotland in the second round. “I can’t see this being too different.
“We’re just trying to do our job.”
Sunday’s decider does come with a twist, though, with Andy now Ireland’s head coach.
Andy said the build-up and the match itself will be particularly hard for his wife and Owen’s mother, Colleen, as well as Owen’s sisters.
“They’ve got unbelievably mixed emotions, I’ve no doubt, because they’re only human,” Andy said. “But, I suppose, how do they try and come to terms with it? I suppose they think that, they hope that, both sides do well. And that’s not going to happen, is it?”
Andy was able to switch off slightly and enjoy what it felt like to be a dad of a star rugby player when he went to watch Owen play in the semifinals (against New Zealand) and then final (against South Africa) at the Rugby World Cup late last year. Ireland was eliminated in the quarterfinals, but Andy stayed in Japan with his wife.
“I was back to being a parent again,” Andy said, “and that is tougher than being a coach against your son that is playing on the opposition.”
Father and son will likely speak over the phone before the game — “it certainly won’t be about our tactics, and it certainly won’t be about his,” Andy said — but expect a firm handshake after the final whistle, when Ireland might have clinched a third straight win in the tournament or England could have earned its second straight victory.
“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,” Andy said. “It’s never been any different.”
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