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David Kelly: 'Connacht find their Friend indeed in the amiable Andy'

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Connacht coach Andy Friend and winger Niyi Adeolokun compose themselves ahead of last weekend’s game against Gloucester. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht coach Andy Friend and winger Niyi Adeolokun compose themselves ahead of last weekend’s game against Gloucester. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Connacht coach Andy Friend and winger Niyi Adeolokun compose themselves ahead of last weekend’s game against Gloucester. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

One Thursday last April, Connacht were taking a breather between two successive interprovincial defeats away from home but there was still time for celebration in their Galway offices.

The sun was shining as it does more than myth will admit as they toasted the birthday of a man who, within a matter of months, had become an intimate, trusted colleague.

It was Andy Friend's 50th birthday and the club were going to have their cake and eat it; deservedly so.

Champions Cup qualification, on their own steam, had been achieved for the second time in the province's history and a PRO14 play-off awaited.

Not since Pat Lam's title-winning days had five Connacht players featured for Ireland during an international window, as had just happened in the Six Nations campaign.

Another five were being touted amongst the vast array of fringe World Cup options.

However, had one been the proverbial eavesdropping insect exactly 12 months earlier in the Connacht offices, the mood would have been vastly different.

Humble pie was the only thing on the menu in April, 2018, when Kieran Keane's turbulent reign was swiftly and brutally terminated after less than a year in charge; and ironically less than a week after a stunning, record 47-10 win against subsequent double winners Leinster. The locals were eager to tell anyone who listened that Keane had lost his way with the squad or wasn't too enthused about showing them one while the higher-ups were none too impressed with his PR skills.

Whatever about the whys and wherefore of what had happened before that April assassination, the crucial thing for Connacht would be what would happen next.

It took less than a month for the province to unveil Keane's successor.

And so by managing to toast his 50th in Connacht instead of Canberra, his place of birth, the amiable Aussie had not only outlasted his predecessor but the results ledger had shown he had out-coached him too.

Difficult

This season's difficult second album has not been without its obstacles; a European exit seems more likely than not.

However, with marquee internationals committing their future to the province, the feel-good factor surrounding the club remains entrenched and Friend's role has been vital.

In allowing his side a structure in which to play with freedom, he has also demonstrated a freedom in selection which removes structure.

There are no favourites. Form is key, both in training and matches.

Ask Jack Carty, a World Cup starter demoted to the bench simply because there has been a better player available in Conor Fitzgerald.

While Pat Lam's expressive guidance became dictatorial in his end-game, and Keane was in contrast extraordinarily light of touch, Friend has struck a perfect balance in terms of his coaching philosophy.

Most importantly of all, the beleaguered coaching group were receptive to an emotionally intelligent voice.

The coach discovered this for himself when he first met the group two summers ago; interestingly, like Munster's recent recruit - and former Friend protégé - Stephen Larkham, the Aussie recognised a squad with a vast array of ball skills.

He tapped into those resources as well as a willingness to learn which had been concealed for lengthy periods and it didn't take long for the results and performances to follow.

Friend also immersed himself in the wider rugby community, spreading the gospel amongst the clubs and schools while he also conducts occasional coaching seminars to which invites are open to all interested parties.

Personality and perspective are key.

His wife, Kerri, suffered a severe brain injury in a fall from a mountain bike in 2011.

Andy would spend 93 days on a solitary ride around Australia raising money for charity.

Kerri has now recovered but the cheery disposition of her husband reflects one who does not allow the sport to consume him.

And that has helped in allowing him to form personal and professional relationships, while also allowing those he coaches to do the same.

Rumours of player insurrection had seen him sacked as Brumbies coach a year before his wife's accident; some may have responded by assuming more control in future. Friend sought to rein his in.

"The depth of any programme comes from the quality of relationships," he told me earlier this year.

"You can be superficial with it. 'How's your day mate?' 'Good'. 'How's the weather?' 'Good. See you tomorrow'.

"You can be that bloke or you can delve in a little deeper and actually want to engage. 'What's upsetting you this morning?' 'Did you sleep well?' 'You're not travelling as well as you used to?'

"Simple things. At meal times, there are no phones on the table because if there were, you're not engaged with the people you're eating with. And if you're on tour, we have three meals a day, that's 42 meals over the whole tour," he added.

"So people aren't on Instagram and we can have 42 other conversations with individuals that we wouldn't otherwise have."

Makes sense that A Friend would believe success begins with being a friend.

Irish Independent