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Early Friend arrival a boost to help Connacht ease summer of transition

Connacht’s new head coach will have ample time to mull over captaincy and structures when he lands in Galway next month.

THE OVERRIDING REASON to be positive about the appointment of Andy Friend as the new Connacht head coach is that he’s available and ready to start work.

While Ulster, who also reportedly had Friend on their shortlist, remain in a bit of a wrangle over the release date of Dan McFarland from the SRU, Connacht will welcome Friend to the Sportsground next month.

Kieran Keane wasn’t terribly late as southern hemisphere arrivals go; he took the reins full-time in August last year after using a gap in the Chiefs’ fixture list to fly north in June for a sample of Galway. Friend left the position of Australia Sevens head coach in April so will be able to oversee the western province’s preparation from start to finish.

That wide window of influence will be extremely useful as Connacht face into a new era.

The loss of John Muldoon and Andrew Browne leaves a chasm of experience and leadership to fill around the Sportsground, while Jake Heenan was also an important figure on and off the field.

Brumbies Season Launch Friend watches a Brumbies training session with then Wallabies coach Robbie Deans. Source: Getty Images

With only three players away on Ireland duty in Australia and a coaching ticket already in place, the 49-year-old will be able to begin imposing the majority of his structures from the off, rather than installing them piecemeal and adapting as the weeks wear on.

An early point of order for Friend will be who he names as the new captain. Experienced heads remain, and if Friend veered towards naming a back, then Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion or Bundee Aki would tick numerous boxes.

Sean O’Brien is a Connacht captain of the future, so he could be a left-field and long-term choice. Hooker Tom McCartney will deliver a senior voice with or without the captaincy, while Eoin McKeon and Eoghan Masterson would be selections very much in the Muldoon-mould. The new coach might balk at the optics of offering the ‘armband’ to a fellow former Brumbies man, but there would surely be few dissenting voices if the figurehead role went to Jarrad Butler.

Nigel Carolan and Jarrad Butler Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It will be intriguing to see how Friend utilises his recently-signed compatriots next season too. Kyle Godwin and David Horwitz were not signed on the new coach’s watch, but he will surely appreciate having Australian playmakers to translate his strategies onto the field.

Not that he is not adaptable. A look down through his CV shows an experienced coach that is anything but rigid as he has taken up head coach roles in England and Japan after cutting his teeth in Australia – including a stint as skills coach under Eddie Jones at the Brumbies – so Galway won’t carry an enormous culture shock.

The bar for improvement is not outrageously high after the KK year either. True, there were excellent performances scattered through the season – most notably the seven-try trouncing of Leinster in what proved to be Keane’s last game – but dazzling days like that and the shoot-out defeat to Gloucester in the Challenge Cup quarter-final served as paper over the cracks of their 7-14 Pro14 form.

In the bread-and-butter domestic competition, the Westerners managed just one win on that road and needed the final-day win over Leinster to finish above Zebre in Conference A.

With experience as head coach, Friend will also be well-versed in the communication and flesh-pressing that can make a job all the easier.

Indeed, it was telling that Friend noted how keen he was to begin work ‘with the wider community’ in Connacht. Expect the grassroots of rugby in the west to be tended in the coming months.

If there is concern over the appointment of Friend, then it’s the flip-side of his availability.

946385750 Source: Mark Kolbe

Tim Walsh was appointed as his successor in charge of Australia Sevens after sixth- and fifth-place finishes in the short-form game dominated by Fiji and New Zealand. Prior to that, a reported player heave was behind his exit from the Brumbies after just two matches of his third season in charge.

But then again, that’s just the life of a head coach.

“I always say we are in such a fickle industry, and that is why I was pleased to be sacked by the Blues,” said Pat Lam in 2016.

“It is like getting dropped from a team, because you only learn from going through that. When I got sacked I said I have finally joined some of the coaches I aspire to be – because all of them have lost their jobs at some stage.”

Friend can’t possibly emulate the full extent of Lam’s influence on Connacht — and it’s to his advantage that it’s not the Samoan’s shoes he will fill — but with a talented squad invested in the project, they’ve started seasons out west in far worse shape.

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Sean Farrell

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