It was only last Monday, as Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki ran together as the midfield combination to face Argentina, that Chris Farrell was calculating how long it might take to earn his second Ireland cap.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has been adamant throughout this autumn camp that the current Test window was a rare opportunity to add depth and assess his wider squad’s potential for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Once the final whistle has blown at the Aviva Stadium tonight, there remain just 16 matches before the pre-tournament warm-up games, 10 of which will be high-stakes Six Nations affairs. Though Munster centre Farrell had made his debut last Saturday against Fiji, he had resigned himself to the prospect of limited opportunities in the future.
Luckily for the 24-year-old, who joined Munster from Grenoble this summer in order to further his international ambitions, those thoughts lasted little more than 24 hours. A hamstring strain suffered by Henshaw on Tuesday threw the door ajar once more and by Thursday he was in the team to play the Pumas. The wait for a second cap was over but that day of contemplation had been sobering.
“You’re always honest with yourself and realistic and I knew on Monday by the way we were running that Bundee and Robbie would be back in,” Farrell said. “Then looking forward to a Six Nations it would also be very, very competitive then and it’s always best foot forward when it comes to the Six Nations.
“So I did think I’d have to work hard back at Munster to try and make sure I put my hand up again to get another shot if it does come for the Six Nations, or just make sure I’m in and around the squad.
“So I was in that mindset a little bit but that got flipped around pretty quickly and I’m focused on this weekend now.
“I had an idea on Tuesday because Robbie pulled up during the session and I was asked to step in for the remainder of the session. I did a few reps with Johnny (Sexton) and Bundee at the end of the session so I had an idea then but it wasn’t confirmed to me that I was starting until I got back up here (to Ireland camp) on Wednesday evening.
“There was a bit of anticipation from Tuesday evening when I went down to Limerick to chill out for a while. I didn’t share that with anyone though, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t think it was anything too serious for Robbie, he said he just stretched it a little bit but was going for a scan. So I didn’t know how serious it was.
“But one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain and I guess I’ve just got to try and take the opportunity and the faith Joe’s put in me with both hands and show my hand this week, because last week against Fiji, as a collective we probably let ourselves down a little bit with certain things. So it’s good to be involved again this week in another massive game. I just need to grab it and take every bit of opportunity that I have.”
The last few months have been a whirlwind for Farrell, who left his native Ulster for France in the summer of 2014 after two injury-ravaged years and went through something of a renewal at Grenoble.
“I just felt I needed a fresh start. I said to (Ulster’s then director of rugby) David Humphries: ‘I’m going to go somewhere, go away and find my feet and have some game time’, have no prejudice where people are thinking hopefully he’s fit again this year. I just needed that.” Conscious that his injury profile might count against him, Farrell admitted the language barrier in France helped his objective of starting afresh with a clean sheet.
“If I’d have gone to England people might have been able to read up that I was injured for two years before, but going to France, no-one knew my name or anything about where I was before!
“It was just ‘we’ve got a new centre from Ireland’ and that was really refreshing to have no-one asking how your injuries were going. It was just a really fresh start and I got heaps of game-time. I think I got 75 games for Grenoble in three years and that was exactly what I was looking for. I was so excited to have got through one year of professional rugby like that. I hadn’t done that before and then to build on that for two seasons without any serious injuries was exactly what I needed.
“So the plan was to go and get game time somewhere, freshen up and then maybe come back to Ireland.”
Maybe turned into definitely during the summer as he signed for Munster, yet though Schmidt had kept the lines of communication open with the Ulsterman during his time in France, Farrell is delighted to have covered so much ground in his short time back. Now he is conscious this unexpected opportunity against tier-one Test opposition is not one to waste.
“I guess it’s all happened very fast but that’s why I came home. That’s what I wanted and this is exactly where I want to be.
“It’s all been a very pleasant surprise to have the opportunity to have two caps come the first November of me being back in Ireland but it’s about making the most of that second cap now. I’ve had the first one and settled in. The first cap is always about fitting in first, that’s the most important thing but now the second is about putting a stamp on the game, fitting in initially but leaving a mark on things.”
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