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Friend introduces new mentor programme to aid player development at Connacht

The head coach has seen the benefits of the initiative in other high-performance programmes around the world.

IT HAS BEEN another excellent week for Connacht following their Challenge Cup victory over Sale Sharks and yesterday’s news of first international call-ups for Jack Carty, Caolin Blade and Tom Farrell.

And as the province continue to head on an upward trajectory with their on-field performances and results, Andy Friend has introduced a new mentor programme to aid player development out west.

A view of Connacht training The Connacht team huddle after training on Tuesday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The Australian head coach has witnessed the benefits of such an initiative in other high-performance environments around the world, and has formalised the scheme which will see Connacht’s senior figures paired up with the club’s academy players.

While it is not uncommon for players to lend their experience to younger members of the dressing room, Friend was keen to formalise the programme as part of his focus on leadership.

The mentor programme was officially launched at the Sportsground on Tuesday morning ahead of this weekend’s Challenge Cup clash in Bordeaux, after academy players were asked to nominate three players in the senior squad they’d like to ‘buddy up’ with.

“Just over 60% of players got their first choice, and if not, most got their second choice,” Friend explained to The42.

“It’s about the academy player wanting to learn from a senior player, and for the senior guys, they now know their role here as a footballer is to also give back and to give back to our young kids coming through. We’re educating them on how to be a mentor.”

Having worked previously with Harlequins, the Brumbies and the Australia sevens set-up, Friend was keen to introduce the system to Connacht. 

“It’s something I’ve seen back home before and worked with programmes before where there’s mentors,” he continued. “To me, it’s a really important part. We talk about great teams having leaders, but phenomenal teams have many leaders and everyone is a leader.

“It’s another way we can get our players on board with leadership so they don’t just take a back seat. You’ve got experience and you’ve got a voice and you can share something, that’s our message. If we can make the younger players behind us stronger and better and they make us stronger and better, then as a group we go forwards.

“That’s the thinking behind it and it has been really well received.”

The commitment to driving standards and producing an environment for growth and evolution follows Connacht’s ‘Club Ambassador’ programme which sees each of the 27 rugby clubs in the province appointed two players from the senior squad.

Those players are then available for club coaching sessions, seminars and other appearances throughout the season, falling in line with the ‘Grassroots to Green shirts’ mantra evidenced again this week with Ireland call-ups for homegrown talents Blade and Carty. 

“It’s an education off the footy field, too, which to me is really important,” Friend added.

Andy Friend Friend is in his first season in charge of Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“What you see out there for 80 minutes is a sum of all the things that are going on behind the scenes and the more you can get people active and driven and keep growing them as men as well as footballers, the better the performance you’ll get out on the field.”

Forwards coach Jimmy Duffy says it will allow the province’s up-and-coming talent to ask their peers ‘the stupid questions they would be afraid to ask in a group setting.’

He explained: “Every player who is in the academy is going to be catered for, and they can ask the questions. They can ask the stupid questions, the ones you’d love to know the answer to but are afraid to ask. That’s trying to bridge the gap and accelerate their learning too. As a coach, it’s great because you’re releasing some of the power and some of your senior players can pass on some of their knowledge. It’s a great initiative.

Andy has been great since he has come in, he’s really empowered the lads to do their jobs, and even the coaching staff.

“We’re all pushing hard and being as competitive as we can be. It has been a really enjoyable time but we’re always looking for areas that we can get a little one percenter here and there and push on.

“Most encouraging for us is the playing group has really stepped up. As a coach, it makes your life so much easier. There’s a lot of mini-unit stuff going on around the place and no matter where you go in the building, you’ll have someone having a little chat about the game or whatever. There’s a really good work-ethic, fellas are enjoying it and hopefully, we can keep it going.”

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Ryan Bailey

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