Wednesday 20 March 2019

Alan Quinlan: A Friend in deed - engaging Aussie seems an excellent fit for Connacht

 

Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Connacht head coach Pat Lam. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

'It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership' (Nelson Mandela)

The sea change out west is obvious; the smiles are back, on and off the pitch, and while the new man at the helm is refusing to take credit for the renewed air of positivity in Connacht, his arrival is its most obvious source.

Results have been good, their best start since the victorious PRO12 season of 2015/'16.

Defensively, they have looked porous at times, yet fewer points have been conceded across their first four games than in any of the previous three league campaigns.

But the biggest shift in Connacht is in the atmosphere - at the Sportsground and across the province - and Andy Friend is the man in control of the thermostat.

The wider sense of engagement that was so carefully fostered by Pat Lam is present again and the Australian head coach's engaging approach is fuelling this - he has already proven to be a friend in deed.

You don't have to be a nice guy to be a good rugby coach, but you do need to be able to relate to your players, to understand their nuances and, most importantly, to understand the culture at a club that is generally woven in the tapestry.

Last season was a disaster for Connacht - losing 14 of their 21 games and finishing sixth in Conference A, only three points clear of basement dwellers Zebre, who illustrated the disheartening theme of the campaign by beating Kieran Keane's side home and away.

It was not solely Keane's fault, the players also have to take responsibility for such an underwhelming season, but it was apparent from early on in his tenure that the gruff Kiwi couldn't adjust to the modern Connacht ethos.

Every coach has their own ideas, and Keane was a proven operator from a nation that exports rugby brains as famously as it does dairy products and manuka honey. But sometimes the personality just doesn't fit.

Cranking

From the off, Friend has made a point of cranking up the positivity, internally and externally, and it's been music to the ears of his players and rugby fans from Sligo to Loughrea.

Expectations have obviously increased since Connacht won the PRO12 three seasons ago, but there is an understanding that such sporting fairy tales are as rare as they are wonderful.

No one is demanding that Connacht consistently blow some of Europe's best sides away, especially on the road. But what their fans do crave is a demonstration of chest-thumping pride on their home patch, a refusal to give in, and obvious signs of progress.

Lam developed a new way of doing things at the Sportsground, which was a mighty uniting force - something Connacht arguably need more than any other province considering the great diversity in the squad.

Last weekend's match-day 23 included seven men who had underage spells with Leinster, six from Connacht, three each from New Zealand and Australia, two from Munster, one Springbok and one Irish exile.

With players who spent their formative years in such faraway places as Ibadan, Nigeria; Queanbeyan, Australia; and Pretoria, South Africa, it is vital that the Connacht coach instils a sense of commonality within this group.

It's easy to say it now, after a relatively positive start to the season, but Friend looks like a great fit for Connacht because his career path mirrors that of many of his Galway motley crew - busy, unsettled, and interesting.

As well as working in his homeland, the nomadic Friend has earned some of his coaching stripes in Japan and England, working with the likes of Eddie Jones and Dean Richards, but home will always be his beloved Canberra, where he grew up, and where he was the main man at the Brumbies from 2009 to 2011.

He was sacked from that post just two months into the 2011 Super Rugby season, a 25-24 loss to the Rebels sealing his fate.

As a head coach, Friend undoubtedly feels he still has something to prove, just like so many of his players - many of whom were let go by the academies in their home provinces, or who left their southern hemisphere nations with international recognition no longer a realistic target on home soil.

Using similar methods to Lam, Friend seems to have united this squad with remarkable speed, which is all the more impressive considering it has been done without the adhesive presence of John Muldoon, for so long the heart and soul of this group.

Noticed

There is often a feeling in Connacht that players need to jump through hoops to get noticed on a national level but, equally, it is accepted that if they continue to win big games they cannot be ignored. If Connacht can prosper collectively, the individual rewards will certainly follow.

After they won the PRO12 just over two years ago, Connacht had seven spots on Ireland's 31-man roster for the summer tour of South Africa, so they know that domestic success will open the international door.

Ultan Dillane, Tiernan O'Halloran and Finlay Bealham will be desperate to return to the fold at a time when the international rugby cycle is at its most generous, while Tom Farrell, Gavin Thornbury, Jack Carty, and Seán O'Brien lead a talented cohort of uncapped players currently plying their trade out west.

Having said that, Connacht cannot afford to get carried away by lofty individual goals such as international recognition, particularly with the best side in Europe travelling to Galway with a point to prove, still smarting from their 47-10 thumping five months ago, the knife apparently twisted - according to Cian Healy - by Muldoon's controversial conversion.

Friend has been deliberately humble this week in the wake of the inevitable praise coming his way following their victory against the Scarlets, deflecting the kudos to his coaches and players.

He knows as well as anyone how fickle this game can be, any coach is only a few successive defeats, or even one bad performance, away from a barrage of criticism - Johann van Graan and Munster being the most recent example.

The most optimistic coaches in the world can quickly change their tune once the vortex of defeat starts pulling them down.

Connacht have lost two of their four games but there are plenty of signs that they are heading in the right direction once again.

Today's game against Leinster will give us a better indication of where they really are at this early stage of the season.

If the tide does start to turn against Connacht in the PRO14 and the Challenge Cup over the next few weeks, I don't expect Friend to shirk the responsibility - a road some of the more celebrated managers in the Premier League are happy to travel.

Friend won't throw his players under the bus to save his own skin, and that's exactly the kind of leader a club like Connacht need.

Irish Independent

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