The two big questions facing Andy Farrell as British and Irish Lions coach

The British and Irish Lions polo fit snugly on the shoulders of Andy Farrell. On Thursday, the worst-kept secret in rugby union was finally confirmed: Ireland head coach Farrell would succeed Warren Gatland and lead the touring party to Australia in 2025.

Put simply, Farrell had made himself the outstanding candidate. Put together a list of qualities desired for this unique role, and Farrell checks almost every box. The Englishman has overseen the development of Ireland into grand slam champions. He has managed a squad of complex, diverse characters, and successfully developed depth and youth, while adapting to the strengths of the team at his disposal.

He has made bold selection calls, like establishing Jamison Gibson-Park as his first-choice scrum half ahead of Conor Murray in recognition of a need to up the tempo, or moving Andrew Porter back to loosehead to ensure he had his two most talented props in the starting side. Farrell has created a strong culture within his group and connected with a fanbase, as evidenced by the sea of green that flooded the Stade de France during the World Cup.

Politically, he is a shrewd choice. He has good relationships with Warren Gatland and Steve Borthwick, having worked alongside them on previous Lions tours, and excellent knowledge of the wider British coaching landscape.

The first question he faces is which coaches to bring along with him. How he assembles his staff will be key. Farrell spoke at his unveiling of how finding the right blend of characters and backgrounds is a necessity, and that he would take his time to piece the puzzle together.

“There’s a long way to go isn’t there? There’s a lot of coaches just starting in new roles,” Farrell said. “Some people will get better as coaches under pressure.

Andy Farrell established himself as the outstanding candidate to become Lions head coach (Getty)
Andy Farrell established himself as the outstanding candidate to become Lions head coach (Getty)

“You’ve got to have the right people on the bus. It’s about excellence as well and the right balance between the coaching staff in general. If you have all the personalities being the same, it won’t feel right. If you don’t get the people right that technically and tactically can deliver to these superb players, that won’t feel right either.”

England are unlikely to let Borthwick take a role as an assistant, but his new defence coach Felix Jones could be a contender for a role – the Irishman is versatile and highly regarded from his time with South Africa. Gregor Townsend guided the attack in South Africa in 2021 and could contend again if the Scotland coach is comfortable with a reduced remit.

Within Farrell’s Ireland staff, Mike Catt is departing and Simon Easterby is likely to take over the head role in an interim capacity. But former Lions captain Paul O’Connell has been credited with transforming Ireland’s pack and would be a strong candidate as forwards coach. His old Munster mate Ronan O’Gara also expressed tentative interest, though his club commitments with La Rochelle could be a sticking point.

The French connections may run deeper than just O’Gara. A growing contingent of England internationals are now based across the Channel, with current Rugby Football Union (RFU) rules rendering that coterie ineligible for England selection.

Former Ireland and Lions lock Paul O’Connell could be part of Farrell’s staff (Getty)
Former Ireland and Lions lock Paul O’Connell could be part of Farrell’s staff (Getty)

Chief executive Ben Calveley confirmed that the Lions have no policy that would preclude this group from selection, but while landmark agreements with Premiership Rugby and the United Rugby Championship will offer Farrell access to his British Isles-based players earlier than ahead of previous tours, there is likely to be a clash with the end of the Top 14 season. “We’ll consider everyone in regards to whether they will make a difference to the Lions touring party,” Farrell suggested.

Of course, the identity of the individuals in question may change the tenor of the conversation. Courtney Lawes, one of those recently linked with a cross-Channel switch, suggested in November that he would consider an invite despite his retirement from England duty while in eye-catching form for Northampton.

And then there is the second big question – namely Owen Farrell, the coach’s son currently contemplating an offer from Racing 92. For the past decade, Farrell has been a close to automatic Lions selection, offering 10/12 versatility plus the leadership and work ethic qualities required to make him an ideal tourist.

This time, though, there would be a decision to make, particularly if a 34-year-old Farrell does have a desire to tour in 2025, having moved to France and taken himself out of the international picture. Were another coach in charge, it would be enough of a challenge: assessing the relative merits of a player not recently tested in international rugby. With Farrell leading the coaching ticket, though, the selection of his son might open up an entirely different conversation.

The possible selection of Farrell’s son Owen (left, on the 2017 tour) could pose a problem (Getty)
The possible selection of Farrell’s son Owen (left, on the 2017 tour) could pose a problem (Getty)

When Farrell senior was his assistant, former England head coach Stuart Lancaster had to occasionally deflect unfair but unedifying suggestions of nepotism relating to Farrell junior’s selection. Any possible move to France, and Owen’s candidacy for inclusion becoming more uncertain, might open up that question again – and there would not necessarily be a right answer for the head coach.

The new Lions boss understandably would not address the topic specifically at his first press conference, but admitted he’d understood why his son may be contemplating a move. “It’s a short career,” the 48-year-old explained. “You want to do things that float your boat and make your family happy.

“It’s all about the memories you create, not just for yourself but for others as well. For some, the thought of devoting yourself to one club is extra, extra special. Owen has that at Saracens but if things do change – and I don’t know whether they will or not – it’ll be for the right reasons or to do the right thing for whatever that person feels he needs to do to be happy.”

The return of travelling fans should enrich the Lions’ time in Australia (Getty)
The return of travelling fans should enrich the Lions’ time in Australia (Getty)

It can be said with reasonable certainty that the eventual selection will be of high quality. Can the same be said of the hosts? Watching Australia’s efforts at the World Cup would hardly have filled viewers with hope of an enthralling encounter with an evenly-matched opposition, but Farrell stated that he was certain that the Wallabies would get their house in order.

This feels like a pivotal tour for the whole Lions concept after a flat, spectator-less 2021 trip to South Africa that is perhaps best forgotten. Calveley opened the door to potentially taking the tourists to other locations on Thursday, while a first women’s tour to New Zealand in 2027 is expected to be confirmed early next week.

There might yet be another bit of history first. The Lions have not swept a series in the modern era; with the right man in Farrell at the helm, and the prospect of an ailing opposition waiting for their arrival, that might yet be an eminently achievable goal.