'You stop and you think, ‘There’s far more to life than a footy game''

Connacht coach Andy Friend tells The42 about his nomadic coaching journey.

CONNACHT HEAD COACH Andy Friend remembers sitting in Careers class in his second last year at Canberra High School in 1985 and being told to write down what he was going to do when he got unleashed into the world.

While others around him furiously scribbled about their plans, Friend was silent and stumped.

He told his teacher he simply had no idea. What about following his father into the world of accounting, suggested the teacher, but Friend had no interest. A doctor? Definitely not.

andy-friend Friend has settled into life with Connacht happily. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Then he told me to imagine being put in front of a room of 100 people and he said, ‘What’s the one subject you would talk about and feel comfortable talking about?’”

Rugby, in which he was showing real promise at the time, instantly burst into Friend’s mind.

“Don’t be silly, a real job,” came the response from his teacher, who pointed out that rugby wasn’t professional. But something had triggered in Friend’s mind.

“I just thought, ‘Why couldn’t I get a job in rugby?’ It was my passion.”

Friend doesn’t come from a rugby-mad family but the sport had captured his imagination during his nomadic upbringing. His father’s line of work meant they moved from his native Canberra to Melbourne in his earliest years, when he played AFL and soccer.

The Friends relocated to Geneva in Switzerland when he was nine, where he recalls getting a life-changing Christmas present at the age of 10.

“I got one of those old Adidas Wallaby balls, the one with the black ends. I remember running around the back yard scoring tries for the Wallabies to win the Test match, and I just fell in love with the game.”

So when the family moved on to England, the 12-year-old Friend began to play with a team for the first time, relishing his rugby in Purley High School for the year-and-a-half they spent living south of London.

By the time the Friends returned home to Canberra, he was smitten and when he left school, having shown his talent by playing for the Australia Schoolboys, he earned a scholarship for rugby at the Australian Insititute of Sport.

He was crippled by knee injuries, however, playing just 13 games in three seasons due to multiple surgeries. But he knew his future was in rugby, so he moved on to study Applied Sports Science and Coaching at the University of Canberra.

He started by coaching kids but was soon back at the Insititute of Sport, where part of his graduate diploma meant looking after seven promising young players – including Stephen Larkham, Joe Roff, and Justin Harrison – just as the game was finally going professional.

Funnily enough, his former student Larkham – who was a prodigious talent back then – is now also working in Ireland with Munster after enjoying a stellar Wallabies career.

eddie-jones Eddie Jones was an early mentor in Friend's career. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Friend’s coaching ability was soon recognised by the Waratahs, who invited him to be their ‘developing elite teams coordinator,’ essentially overseeing all players and teams beneath Super Rugby level. Just like that, his schoolboy idea had become a reality.

Two years later, he took his first coaching leap abroad after randomly picking up a newspaper and noticing an ad for a coaching position in Japan.

“I rang the number and it just happened to be Eddie Jones, who was coaching the Brumbies at that time,” recalls Friend. “The job was with Suntory Goliath and Eddie had a link there because he had coached there before.”

An eight-week trial turned into a permanent position in Japan and that phone call was also the beginning of an enduring relationship with now-England boss Jones.

Having returned home from Japan and linked up with Jones at the Brumbies, Friend was then brought into the Wallabies set-up in 2002 and stayed on into the 2003 World Cup, working as a technical coordinater under head coach Jones.

“He’s an amazing man to get to know and his work ethic is second to none, his attention to detail is second to none, he has an inquisitive nature,” says Friend.

“You could spend an hour with Eddie and walk away thinking, ‘I didn’t stop talking’ because he just kept asking questions. He’s been a really good sounding board and mentor to have without a doubt.”

Former Wallabies flanker and had coach David Brockhoff, who sadly passed away in 2011, was another key influence on Friend in his early coaching days, as he rapidly amassed further experience, including leading the Australia U21s into the World Championship final in 2005.

He was ready for another adventure at that stage, taking up an offer to head coach English side Harlequins, staying until 2008 when the Brumbies came calling. 

The Canberra franchise had solid 2009 and 2010 Super Rugby seasons but Friend then had his contract terminated in 2011 amid some player discontent. 

“I learned a hell of a lot from it,” says Friend of that time. “We had managed to get a lot of good players, big-name players. The thing I learned about that was that I needed to be better at managing them and also better at managing up.

“The CEO at the time, he enjoyed the relationship with the players and I probably just assumed that things were normal in my eyes.

andy-friend Friend during his time as Brumbies boss in 2009. Source: Photosport/Anthony Au-Yeung/INPHO

“Listen, in the end, I’ve got to take some responsibility for it. I’m very values-driven and I pushed some values onto the team rather than allowing the team to come up with their own values.

“I learned a lot about that and a lot about having the right people around you and making sure that there’s alignment in everything you do with the staff that you’ve got.

“That ended in a sacking. They asked me to resign but I said I wasn’t going to because I didn’t feel I had done anything wrong. So they terminated my contract.”

Friend says that he didn’t find it too difficult to come to terms with that sacking as he realised that conversations about him had been going on behind closed doors. 

“I had lost trust and faith, to be honest, so I told them to sack me and they did.”

Friend had more important things to worry about. Just nine months before, his wife, Kerri, had suffered a serious brain injury in a mountain biking accident.

“That puts everything in perspective,” says Friend. “A job and a sacking and losing a position, it meant nothing, it really didn’t.

“It was disappointing that it finished that way but that’s honestly where it ended. Then we got onto getting her right.”

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After taking a year off work to focus on helping his wife’s positive progress, Friend returned to Japan in 2012 to get back on the coaching horse, enjoying stints at the Canon Eagles and back at Suntory over a spell of four years.

His experiences in England and Japan, as well as his native Australia, have certainly given Friend plenty of different perspectives on the game, helping to make him the coach he is today.

“Japan is all about ‘how many points can we score? Where is the space in attack?’ One team might score six tries and even if the opposition scores five tries, they’re happy with that because you scored more,” he explains.

“England was ‘how do we stop them scoring tries? How can we stop them in the set-piece?’ England was all about playing field position and having a dominant forward pack who could wear an opposition down. So two very distinct styles.

“In the middle of that was the Australian way, which was never kick the footy, run, play and when you don’t have the footy, be really aggressive in defence.”

rugby-sevens-presser Friend during his time in charge of the Australia 7s. Source: AAP/PA Images

Friend took over as head coach of Australia 7s in 2016, a job that he says helped him to refocus on players’ individual technical skills and drill deeper into that area of the game.

And having left that role in 2018, he was available and willing to travel last year when IRFU head honcho and fellow Australian David Nucifora – who he knew from the Brumbies – felt Friend could add to the Irish system and linked him with Connacht after the departure of Kieran Keane.

Friend has proven to be a fine figurehead for Connacht, while he and Kerri – now in their 19th home in the past 25 years – are loving life in another new country. Cycling trips around the province and evening walks in Salthill are among the joys.

“There is good balance here,” says Friend. “I love the people, I really do. There are quality people at Connacht and the Irish have a great way of living too. They enjoy their social time together and they enjoy family, that’s really important to me. To me, the people here are real people.”

Friend takes his job seriously and he enjoys the honesty and ambition of this Connacht squad, while praising his assistant coaches and the province’s CEO, Willie Ruane.

But he definitely comes across as a man who continues to remind himself that rugby is simply work, not his life.

“I do, I do. Working in Japan probably did that for me too. I remember there was many a day where we didn’t leave the office until 2.30 in the morning.

“You’d be back at 9 o’clock in the morning after getting home, having a quick sleep, taking the kids to school, then come back and start all over again.

“I remember sitting there one day thinking, ‘I wish there were more hours in the day.’ But I stopped myself and thought that even if I worked 24/7, I’d still find things to do. I was kidding myself trying to think I was going to get it all done. That’s when I started to prioritise the key things. It was a really good lesson.

“Then you get a real life lesson around that when a loved one is maybe going to get through, maybe not going to get through. There’s a definite change. You stop and you think, ‘There’s far more to life than a footy game.’

“I actually don’t get too stressed whether we win or lose. We win and I’m happy we’ve won and really pleased for the players. If we lose, I am disappointed, I am, and it depends on the manner.

“But you’ll never see me get really excited or really low because, at the end of the day, it’s a footy game.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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