Wednesday 15 August 2018

Friend's first policy will be to engage with his new players

Andy Friend. Photo: Stuart Walmsley/ARU Media
Andy Friend. Photo: Stuart Walmsley/ARU Media
David Kelly

David Kelly

What to do next after the "perfect fit" proves itself to be about as imperfect as a pair of ill-fitting, crotch-chafing polyester trousers?

Connacht supporters will hope that Andy Friend's arrival out west will turn out to be a much smoother suit than the hapless year-long stint endured by Kieran Keane in what became an increasingly uncomfortable hot seat.

It remains to be seen whether the Australian, once earmarked by Ulster, was the westerners' first-choice before Dan McFarland, who may have been, ended up being unveiled by the northerners on the same day as Keane's exit.

What is certain is that Connacht must now ensure that not only can they convince him that they are suitable enough to be bedfellows for much more than a year, but that he can also do the same.

Connacht, bitten by Keane, have been shy this time around in trumpeting their new man.

This time last year, there was much hoopla about values, community, style of play after Keane was unfurled after the, natch, "rigorous" process usually applied when the "best man wanted" posters are stuck in the shop window.

Unveiling

It was a different unveiling this week of the 49-year-old who, from his time at the Brumbies in Australia, would be well-known to the top man in IRFU HQ, David Nucifora, both personally and professionally, and will be quite capable of being his own man.

Friend appears to offer a more holistic offering compared to his ascetic, often distant, predecessor who endured a mutually difficult relationship with his squad and employers.

Connacht are confident that, although results are important yet cannot be guaranteed, Friend will provide surety in key areas.

Primarily, the former Australian schoolboy full-back will be much more hands on in terms of skill development that his predecessor and this will be key as Connacht's ability here nosedived following Pat Lam's exit.

Instructed to trust their own instincts and without a set play-book, they seemed unable to. Friend will now seek to rebuild that relationship with the ball.

Friend worked as a skills coach at the Brumbies under Eddie Jones and was a pivotal creative influence at Harlequins a decade ago so, unlike Keane, he understands the differences inherent in northern hemisphere rugby.

And, as an Australian Sevens coach, skills, allied to the identification of attack shape and space, will have been key attributes of his remit.

If Keane, as his public criticisms implied, was a less than empathetic coach, Friend's philosophy imparts the key value that "mistakes aren't fatal", an attribute that enduringly endeared Lam to his squad during their mutual rise to PRO12 glory.

A less important asset, but heightened given Keane's less than keen interest, will be Friend's ability to make friends and influence people.

While much of the noise surrounding Keane's exit seemed to suggest that he was required to attend every cake sale and communion in the province, it was noted that he had less than a committed attitude towards spreading the rugby gospel.

Friend, aside from perhaps repeating the good intentions from his time at the Brumbies, where he gathered the squad for a pre-season bonding session, also proved himself to be a keen supporter of the grassroots.

He regularly attended the training sessions of local clubs during the week, as well as matches during the weekend. It is expected that he will continue this policy when he arrives in the summer.

The time of arrival is also key; Keane lamented pre-season preparations in 2017 in his final press briefing and, after the shambolic summer that followed their PRO12 triumph, also slammed by Lam, a good start may prove more than half the battle.

Ultimately, Friend will be patient with Connacht. They must respond in kind.

Irish Independent

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