Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Fast, relentless, adaptable - Connacht's 'gardener' targets URC quarter-final

Andy Friend is heading into his fourth season in charge of the province.

ANDY FRIEND HAS been in the coaching game long enough to know that he doesn’t need to dominate every conversation around Connacht.

There’s no need to lead every drill, articulate every analysis point, or be at the centre of everything that happens.

The buck will always stop with the head coach but Friend recognises the value in giving those around him time and space to do what they’re good at.

He has a new-look coaching staff working with him this season, with Pete Wilkins moving from defence coach to senior coach with primary responsibility for running Connacht’s attack.

South African maul and lineout nerd Dewald Senekal has come in as forwards coach, while Mossy Lawlor and Colm Tucker have been promoted into the senior set-up after their excellent service in Connacht’s academy. Tucker is the new defence coach and Lawlor is assisting on attack as well as acting as skills coach.

Friend’s assistants will all be on a learning curve over the coming season, and the Australian himself is still learning plenty after over 25 years as a coach.

He signed a new two-year deal to stay with Connacht this year after some speculation the popular head coach would be leaving. Now he’s excited about what lies ahead as the province target a home quarter-final in the new United Rugby Championship this season.

“This is a different year for me, it’s the first time in my coaching career that I’m going into a fourth and fifth year,” says Friend, who has stints with Harlequins, the Brumbies, two Japanese clubs, and the Australia 7s on his CV.

“I’ve only ever worked somewhere for three years and then I tend to get choofed off and go somewhere else – I tend to make the decision to go somewhere else or I get the boot and I’m out.

peter-wilkins Pete Wilkins is now Connacht's senior coach. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“So this is a brilliant new option for me and I’m really enjoying it. I’m giving a lot of the responsibility to Pete Wilkins, who is thriving in that. I’m taking more of what I call the ‘gardener’ approach, eyes-on and hands-off, but it’s giving me a lot more of an ability to dial into players and staff just to check in with them.

“We’ve got 43 players – 44 in the next few days would be good! – and 17 staff, so we have a lot of people you’ve got to keep checking in with and they all have a lot going on in society and in life.

“I’m really enjoying the adjustments to that and really proud of the way people are adapting to the new set-up. I’m constantly learning.”

While Friend is always focused on how things are going off the pitch, Connacht’s theme for their approach on it this season is ‘fast, relentless, adaptable.’

Those three words encapsulate what Connacht want to stand for when they play, the traits they want their supporters to immediately identify.

“It wasn’t my sole decision,” said Friend of pinpointing those characteristics. “Pete and I had lots of really healthy conversations at the tail end of last year.

“We have played a version of that style of play since I arrived – people would say Connacht like to throw the ball around and are pretty dogged in how they hang in there – but we didn’t actually give them labels.

“We just thought it was going to be really important that we put labels on how we want to play so it would hold us to account in the way we train and play. What we came up with there was a combination of the squad we’ve got and a combination of what Connacht have had at their best – winning the 2016 Pro12 and other big games we’ve won.

“That’s what you’ve seen – Connacht playing a high-tempo game, never saying die, staying in the fight and not giving up, and being like that little Aussie terrier that won’t leave you alone.

“The ‘adaptable’ part is really important with where we are in the west of Ireland as well as us as a squad. We don’t have the physical firepower that some other squads have – Stade Français and Leicester, who we’re going to meet in the Champions Cup, for example. 

colm-tucker-peter-wilkins-andy-friend-and-mossy-lawler Colm Tucker, Friend, Wilkins, and Mossy Lawler. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“The way we adapt our game style based on opposition threats and what they’re doing is going to be a really important part for us to stay ahead of the curve.”

Connacht have retained Jarrad Butler as their skipper this season but his title shifts from simply ‘captain’ to ‘club captain’.

Friend explains how the process was different this time around.

“When I came in, Jarrad was the elected captain from a team vote. It was the same in the second and third year. Quite rightly – he was the players’ choice, the staff’s choice, and my choice to be captain.

“I didn’t go to an election this year, I went to a selection. Having been here for three years, I believe I have got a good handle on who is who in terms of leadership and who the players look at. 

“I was confident in giving him the leadership again but the only difference this time is that I think we’ve got some brilliant young leaders coming through. 

“We saw Paul Boyle last year, Tom Daly and Caolin Blade also had stints being the captain, Jack Carty in pre-season, we’ve got Eoghan Masterson.

“By naming JB [Butler] as club captain, it pretty much says that off the field he is the main man and that doesn’t mean he isn’t the main man on the rugby field, but it doesn’t give him carte blanche that if he’s selected to play, he’ll also be skipper.

“It allows us to develop the next crop of leaders coming through as well as acknowledging that he’s the main man who people look to at this time.”

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