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'You don’t ever want to go through that, wondering will or won't she live. It was traumatic'

The Connacht coach reflects on the two horrific accidents that have shaped his life and career.

Andy Friend-3

IF YOU ARE a rugby coach, December brings its own charm. Grey skies, heavy winds, soft surfaces, hard truths. Irish derbies and the Champions Cup, French sides arriving with big reputations and bigger budgets, the face of their full-back ageing from the time the ball leaves Jack Carty’s boot to the moment it drops from the Galway sky.

The weather forecast suggests it won’t just be a rugby ball that will fall from the clouds tomorrow and when you mention this to Andy Friend, you sense the Australian is enraptured with this winter game.

But rainy days also bring back a painful memory. He was coaching the Brumbies at the time, his home-town team, his dream job.

Sometimes dreams have sad reflections. Expectations were high, the pressure relentless. By nature he is a hard worker but he also likes to strike a balance in his life. “I was at a (leadership) conference recently and the host asked me to introduce myself. I said ‘I’m Andy Friend, a husband and a father’. That’s what defines me.”

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On this winter day in 2010, husband and wife were on his and her mountain bikes, entering a race called Canberra’s Capital Punishment, Friend choosing to ride in the 100km race, Kerri, his better half, in the 50km. The night before was a wash-out, and as they peered through a grey Canberra dawn, the Friends considered staying indoors.

Instead they braved it. Normally Friend would complete a course like that in five hours but because the wet conditions had made the surface treacherous, the day was a struggle, seven-and-a-half hours passing by the time he came through the final checkpoint.

“Are you Andy?” a steward asked.

“Yeah.”

“Andy Friend?”

“That’s right.”

“Your race is finished.”

Friend was confused. He knew he had another nine kilometres to race and wondered what the problem was.

The problem was Kerri had suffered a terrible fall. The problem was she had a bleed on the brain and he needed to get to hospital as quickly as possible. The problem was he had to tell his two sons before anyone else did.

“You don’t ever want to go through a process like that, wondering will she live, won’t she live. It was traumatic. They placed Kez in an induced coma. We didn’t know if she was going to survive, or, if she was going to make it what damage there would be.

“It got to the stage where we rushed the boys (sons Josh and Jackson) to the hospital and said, ‘look this may be your one chance to say something to mum’. It was pretty full on.”

There is a happy ending to this story. The boys have been able to ‘say things’ to their mum for the 11 years since. Kerri’s recovery was swift. The scare, the near-death experience, it served to bring an already close-knit family even tighter together.

“Life is precious,” their famous father tells you.

It’s something he doesn’t shy away from reminding others of.

A couple of years ago, his Connacht team were in France for a European game. That night, Friend allowed them to go out, imposing a 1am curfew. Of course it was broken. That’s what young men do when it’s a Saturday night and your coach is the calmest individual in the trade.

But the next day, words were said. The Connacht players were taken aback. “How come you are getting so cranky about something like this, Friendy?”

He told them why.

Way back in 2009, just three weeks before his 40th birthday, he and the Brumbies were in Durban for a Super Rugby game. Afterwards 15 of them headed out to a niteclub. Tragically one of them, Shawn Mackay, didn’t make it back, knocked down as he crossed a road to get on the team bus. It was 4.15am when Mackay and his team-mates left the club.

These were the thoughts racing through Andy Friend’s head in a Canberra hospital a year later. “I was looking at my wife hooked up to these machines in an emergency department and the only other person I’d ever seen like that was Shawny. That didn’t finish in a good way.

“So, when the neurosurgeon came out of the theatre, and told me Kez’s eyes were dilating, and that he may not need to operate, I distinctly remember thinking that’s fine with me because the last time I went through something like this was with Shawny. It was the invasive surgery – and then the subsequent infection – that got to him.”

Shawn Mackay was 26-years-old.

The days and weeks that followed his death were tortuous. Time passed. Time doesn’t always heal.

It is Thursday morning when we chat. His face is friendly, his demeanour calm. As the conversation develops he uses three words to describe himself – competitive, considered, caring. On the walls of their Galway training base, Connacht have three words of their own printed in big, bold print: ambition, belief, community. “In a way, those words are not too far from mine,” Friend says.

There is so much more to him, though, than three short words. At 52-years-old he has lived a life. No one gets to 52 without sorrow.

“There are only two things that get me emotionally,” he says. “One is talking about Kerri’s accident, the other is Shawn. At the time I wasn’t emotional. I was unable to (cry) to be honest. With Shawn, I was conscious that I was head coach, in South Africa, far from home, and it was tragic for everybody. In those circumstances, you have to stand tall and be supportive of others. Therefore I didn’t have that emotional release.

“A couple of years later, it was very similar with Kez because we had the two boys and you want to be strong for them.

“I have a belief that for every tragedy you go through there is a well of emotion you have to release. It may come out when the event happens but if don’t unleash it then, the well remains full, the emotion still there. It is only over time that you get to empty that well.”

Twelve years on, there’s still plenty of water. He thinks about Mackay regularly, remembering when he first met him on the Sevens circuit, thinking constantly of him in the first week of April, the anniversary of his passing. Whenever he gets back to Australia, he speaks with the boy’s parents. “They’re good people; they’ve gone through a hell of a lot. For me, I’ve a feeling of real, lasting sadness.”

That’s why he had to share this story with his Connacht boys. That’s why he was cranky about the curfew being missed. “I told the boys that I’m not going to be sitting in the foyer waiting for them but I also said, ‘hey guys, I don’t ever want to go through that experience again’. Someone once said to me that not much good happens after midnight. And it’s true. Now look, I’ve been that bloke that stayed out to six in the morning. I get it. But in my view it is different if you are away on someone else’s watch. You have to respect that.”

****

Respect.

He has it in spades.

Since taking over Connacht three-and-a-half years ago, Friend has improved the team immeasurably.  They’re an easy side to watch, a hard one to beat. That combination hasn’t happened by accident, Friend building up his players confidence through the strength of his personality, the quality of his coaching. Last season they became the first Connacht side in history to defeat Ulster, Leinster and Munster away. This year, on a stinking night, they played the best rugby of the URC season to trounce the Bulls. Tomorrow it is Stade Francais in the Champions Cup.

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tom-daly-and-john-porch-celebrate-with-try-scorer-tom-farrell Connacht celebrate their win over the Bulls Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Winning is important but so too are relationships and community,” Friend says. “There is a real affiliation there with the values Connacht hold. I like that about the club but look, don’t get me wrong, I also want us to be the first group from here to reach the Champions Cup knock-outs. We have to be a team that is striving to do that. We have earned the right to have that ambition.”

Once upon a time, Andy Friend’s ambition was limited to just doing the job he loved.

He was 26 when he started in this volatile profession, his eldest boy just two months old. Work took him around Australia, then the world, to the Waratahs, the Brumbies, later to England, to Japan and to Australian underage and sevens’ sides. He helped Eddie Jones’ Wallabies reach the 2003 World Cup final, won a junior world championship with the Aussie youngsters, won a tournament on the world Sevens’ series, finished second in the Premiership with Harlequins.

world-rugby-sevens-series-allianz-stadium Friend coached Australia's Sevens side. Source: AAP/PA Images

It all sounds perfect yet it wasn’t.

Twice he’s been sacked, the first time in 2004 as a Waratahs assistant. “I’ll never forget it. My eldest lad had just turned 10. Then, on a Thursday, we got this new car (a contractual perk) and the boys loved it. I parked it in the driveway and they were ‘ah dad, bring us for a spin’. The next day, I went into work and got told I was out. I had no inkling it was coming. And the first thing I thought of was the boys. I kept thinking, ‘how am I going to explain it to them? They love that car’.”

Soon different thoughts emerged. Lose a rugby job in December and there’s a fair chance another won’t come around until the following June. “I had a two month pay-off. You’ve a mortgage and everything else going on so yeah, it was tricky, really tricky.”

The following week came a deeper, much more personal blow, the death of his grandfather.  “Pop was a wool classer and always had a way of putting them in perspective.” Friend’s self-pity disappeared. He looked for solutions. “I used to lop trees. I had my own mowing business. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll do that; we’ll be able to supply food and if we need to slow down our mortgage repayments then that’s what we’ll do’. It didn’t overly concern me. I backed myself. Deep down I knew I was going to get something (else in rugby).”

His instinct was accurate. First it was Harlequins who called, then in 2008 the Brumbies. His record there was reasonable but two games into the 2011 season, they sacked him. Kerri’s accident had happened just months previously. “When you are a head coach, your time is pretty much gone and while you try and get a balance between your personal life and your coaching life, it is very, very hard. So being honest, given all Kez had gone through, the day I got sacked, my immediate thought was ‘sweet. I’m out; I’m able to spend time at home’.”

In fact husband and wife were soon on their travels, three months training leading to three months moving around on a 5,000-mile cycle tour. The Friends re-mortgaged the house to pay for their year out, Andy turning down offers of work from both Australian and English clubs. “I’ve a weird relationship with money. I know you need it in life but it just isn’t an obsession for me. Way back then, we just said, ‘let’s draw down the money and let’s get Kez right’. It was the best decision we ever made.”

Coming to Connacht, he says, is a close second. The boys, Josh and Jackson, are men now, the elder lad 27, the younger one 25. Their dad chats to them regularly, rising at 5am to get an early morning walk in along the Atlantic coast, where he makes his phone calls to friends and family back in Australia. He likes the outdoor life here, is in the process of buying a motorhome, still sets off on the bike when the time allows.

First things first, though, he’s a job to do. Stade Francais is the sort of scalp Connacht love to take. He’s calm about the task ahead, partly because of the thoroughness of their preparation – but also because life has thrown bigger issues than a game of rugby at him.

On the day of Mackay’s funeral, he was asked to read a poem. He held it together as he spoke from the altar, reading this verse to the congregation. “The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life is the one staring back from the glass.”

Those chosen words summed up Shawn Mackay’s attitude to life.

And his own.

* Connacht v Stade Francais, 1pm, tomorrow, Galway Sportsground

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Garry Doyle

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