It has been obvious for months that Andy Farrell would lead the British & Irish Lions’ 2025 tour to Australia, which made his coronation in central London a mostly ceremonial affair. The only bigger certainty was that the new boss would have to field multiple questions about his son Owen’s next move, specifically whether a potential switch to France’s Top 14 might reduce the fly-half’s chances of selection.
The current answer is no, despite Owen’s recent decision to step aside from playing Test rugby for England. Farrell senior made clear that all players resident overseas would be eligible for the tour, a precedent having been set by, among others, the Paris-based Finn Russell in 2021. As the 48-year-old bluntly put it: “We’ll consider everyone in regards to whether they will make a difference to the Lions touring party. That’s all that matters.”
Form, he was equally quick to stress, counted for more than a player’s geographical whereabouts or what coloured jersey he was wearing. He was also adamant his son would be treated just like anybody else, regardless of where he might be playing his club rugby next season. “Selection, as far as that’s concerned, is the same as everyone else. It’s no different.”
In this case, however, it is not quite that simple. It already looks certain that players involved in the French league playoffs will miss the early part of the Lions tour, which starts with a warm-up game against Ireland in Dublin on Friday 20 June. Balanced against that is the likelihood the Lions will need at least one experienced 10, with Scotland’s Russell currently the only nailed-on starting fly-half across the four home unions.
Nor, at this distance, is there a clear-cut tour captain in the Alun Wyn Jones mould, which is why some bookmaking sites are listing Farrell Jr as their shortest-priced bet to be skipper, ahead of England’s Maro Itoje, Ireland’s James Ryan and Wales’s Jac Morgan. That all depends, of course, on Farrell declaring himself available to tour, with even his father insisting he does not yet know his son’s future plans.
“It’s his choice,” reiterated the Ireland coach, when asked if he would support Owen moving abroad. “Of course. There are no promises, it’s a short career. 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.”
Having been involved in two previous Lions expeditions in 2013 and 2017 as a defence coach, there is absolutely no doubt Farrell Sr will be up for this particular challenge – “I love everything above the format” – regardless of how many family members are on the plane. In theory, he has massive shoes to fill in succession to the long-serving Warren Gatland. In practice, as a seasoned winner in both codes, he was born for this high-profile overlord role.
Only the language surrounding the most coveted job in northern hemisphere rugby has altered slightly. In 2013 Farrell was filmed on video exhorting his players to enter “the hurt arena” as the Test series against the Wallabies reached its climax. Just over a decade on and even he had to chuckle at being called a “cultural architect” by the Lions’ chief executive, Ben Calveley, because of his proven ability to bind squads together. “I wouldn’t describe myself like that,” he replied immediately, flashing that familiar flat-nosed Wigan smile. “There won’t be any film star roles from me, just being myself and making sure the team comes first.”
What he definitely does represent, though, is a serious threat to Australia. As a former rugby league legend, Farrell is hugely respected down under and it will fascinating to see who the Wallabies pick to confront him. Even if it is his Irish coaching predecessor Joe Schmidt – “‘He wouldn’t tell me if he had been approached, so there’s no point me asking him” – Farrell has an uncanny knack of rising to the big occasion. His eventual coaching team – Paul O’Connell, Gregor Townsend, Felix Jones and possibly even Ronan O’Gara will all be contenders – will not contain any lightweights either.
It is also an important tour for the Lions after the Covid disruption, empty stadiums and grim-faced fare of the last South Africa series. Happily, it is already inked into the tour agreement that Wallabies players must be available for the warm-up games, with discussions also ongoing about possible tweaks to the traditional Lions tour roster after New Zealand in 2029. A project entitled Beyond 25 will examine various options and Calveley emphasised “there is nothing set in stone for the future”. Lions tours may be anachronistic in some respects but they continue to be lucrative cash cows.