Friend to deliver Connacht's new vision post-Covid

Head coach Andy Friend gets ready to put Covid behind Connacht and deliver new vision.

Head coach Andy Friend gets ready to put Covid behind Connacht and deliver new vision.

As a new-look Connacht takes shape for the coming season, head coach And Friend has had plenty of time to think about how to achieve on-field success. Day 11 of a 14 day quarantine in a hotel in Australia, Connacht Rugby coach Andy Friend is counting down the hours before being released. It is the first time he has been 'home' in three years - Covid having stymied any plans to visit family and friends. So when he signed a new contract to stay on at the Galway Sportsground for another two seasons, it was a stipulation that he be able to head home this summer.

Now in Brisbane and fortunate to have a room with a balcony, Friend has an exercise bike delivered, while wife Kerri tries to produce her 10,000 daily steps in its confines. And although it is winter, it helps that the weather is still warmer than a Galway summer.

It is a well deserved break from the Sportsground after 18 months of leading Connacht in what has been "the most bizarre year".

"The biggest success was that we got through the season with no game being cancelled or postponed, we had some Covid cases, but no one got very ill with it, and we managed to beat the three big provinces at home - a brilliant milestone to achieve - and at the same time we continued to blood a lot of young players and keep players together for next year."

During that period there were no team or face to face meetings, no corridor chats, no shaking hands, but it built a new resilience, he believes.

"To me it was a year just to get through, which we've done, and I know we can survive anything now. Here we are, having managed to get through a season and find other ways, which is a real complemint to the staff and the playing group.

"I think we have done some good things. There were some frustrating performances, but I reckon we are ready to launch into a special two years coming up."

Friend's contract extension sees him remain at the Sportsground longer than he has spent in any previous club - the Brumbies, England's Harlequins, Japan's Canon Eagles and Suntory Sungoliath, and the Australian Sevens.

Although in "unchartered waters", Friend is critical of himself for failing to "nail down an identity". However, the new season's mantra is to be " fast, relentless and adaptable".

"They are the three things for our on-field identity of Connacht rugby, and if we can be that - through the way we train, the way we act around the Sportsground, in the community, and on the football field, we want to be that.

"We will also have vision for the players - I am still planning my way through it - and that is one of the beauties of being in quarantine because I've had a lot of time to think about it - but with that on-field identity and vision I think if I can be so much clearer with the staff and players, we can launch to another level and that is exciting. We've had a reasonable three years, but have we shot the lights out? Not yet. Can we? We can. I do think we have the makings of a playing squad and a coaching team to do that."

"What is different? The vision has not changed", he says, but "I probably wasn't good enough to verbalise it". It was "watch what I do and that is the vision".

"I don't want to sound conceited, but I think there is a certain way to live and do things, and and if you are respectful yet competitive, you earn people's respect and you will be a team and individual people want to follow, believe in, and get behind, but I haven't verbalised it.

"So I have a vision, it is not long winded. It's going to be a couple of simple ones around the way we behave, because to me it's our behaviours that will make us - our identity and behaviours on a daily basis are going to be the next thing that launch us forward into hopefully another title that Connacht experienced back in 2016."

Having beaten all three provinces, Munster, Leinster and Ulster, away for the first time away this season, set a new bar, and Friend says Connacht's belief is growing.

"When I came in there was an attitude that when you lose against them, we probably should be losing. 'No, you shouldn't.' It is how do we adjust that, and those wins away this year will stand us in great stead to launch again from that.

Having six players in the Irish squad, with Bundee in the Lions; new recruits Leva Fafita, a Tongan international, Mack Hansen, who has played Super Rugby; and the growth of the young guns - Niall Murray, Cian Prendergast, and Jordan Duggan, will help propel that confidence.

The new emerging players have no fear, he says.

"They don't give a stuff about anybody. They are pulling on a Connacht jersey, and can go and beat anyone - good. I think with this identity and a new coaching team, I just think it is right for us to go to another level, but we have to believe that internally, we are not just the fourth province. And those wins were not just flukes. If we play our best, we can knock them off."

Part one to two to be published next week.


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