'Number one, rugby is about expressing yourself. You've got to play'

Connacht’s new head coach, Andy Friend, wants his team to play without any fear.

CONNACHT’S 2018/19 CAMPAIGN gets underway on Saturday evening in France, as they travel to the town of Arnac Pompadour to take on Jeremy Davidson’s Brive in a pre-season friendly.

New Connacht boss Andy Friend will welcome the chance to kickstart the season against the Pro D2 side, but he has been enjoying the Irish summer in between working his players hard in training.

Friend, who is a keen mountain biker, has discovered the joys of Connemara and has also become a keen Galway fan, taking in live football and hurling matches in what has been a fun few months for the Tribesmen.

Andy Friend Friend has settled in well in Galway. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With his last job having been as head coach of his native Australia’s men’s sevens team on the glamorous World Series circuit, it’s just as well that the Irish summer has been delivering while Friend has settled in.

Friend and Connacht will feel they have laid good foundations in this pre-season, but the real job of delivering results is now just over three weeks from getting started, with Connacht at home to Glasgow in their Guinness Pro14 opener on 1 September.

Last season’s campaign was underwhelming, with just seven wins in 21 games contributing to Kieran Keane being sacked.

The atmosphere around Connacht’s squad was poor at times too, with some players struggling to connect with Keane’s coaching style and game plan, but Friend’s arrival has lifted spirits.

The experienced 49-year-old head coach now wants to see his players finding joy in their jobs.

“Number one, rugby is about expressing yourself,” says Friend. “You’ve got to play.

“As coaches, we’ve got to give the boys the confidence to play. My job as a coach is to give them the knowledge, the system, the skillset and the confidence to go out and express themselves.

“I’ve been asking the boys what their weapon is, the one skill they can be world-class at. They all have one so we’ve got to find out collectively what that is and make sure we support him in producing that on the footy field. We have to be sure the boys aren’t playing with fear.”

Friend may have most recently been involved in sevens but 21 of his 23 years as a professional rugby coach have come in the 15s game and he says he “feels like I’ve jumped out of an old pair of shoes and put on a pair of slippers again.”

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

Interestingly, though, Friend feels he can take some of what he experienced with the Australia sevens team back into 15s.

“Especially the detail within play,” he explains. “One small area can kill you in the game of sevens, so you’ve got to be very accurate with what you do and it probably taught me to focus a bit more on the detail during my time in sevens. That’s what I’m looking to bring to this group.”

Given that he has held head coach positions at Harlequins, the Brumbies and two Japanese clubs, Friend is entirely comfortable leading Connacht’s bid to lift themselves up the Pro14 table and have a good tilt at the Challenge Cup this season.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora – also a former Brumbies head coach – was instrumental in bringing Friend to Ireland. They go a long way back in Australia, although they haven’t actually worked together before now.

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One man in the Irish rugby system who Friend has already had a good experience of working with is Joe Schmidt, who invited the Connacht head coach into Ireland’s training camp in Surfers Paradise in June.

“The whole centralised system is a strength here, the collaborative approach to the game and the sharing of ideas,” says Friend.

“I hadn’t even started in Connacht but I was allowed to spend three days there with the Irish team, Joe and the other staff. It was that sharing of ideas and that’s what the game of footy is about.

“You can make yourself an island pretty quickly if you think you know all the answers. Most things have been done before and if they haven’t been done before, a version of it’s been done.

“The more you talk and share, the quicker you learn and the better you become.”

Andy Friend and Willie Ruane Friend alongside Connacht CEO Willie Ruane. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Friend appreciates that Connacht will have setbacks along the way this season but he is confident that there is more in this squad than they showed in 2017/18.

“I can see the ambition here. I saw the 2016 performances [when Connacht won the Pro12] and they played with a lot of ambition, a lot of belief, and they backed themselves. I know they’ve done it, they know they’ve done it, and it’s about re-finding that.”

While the loss of John Muldoon to retirement may have been a blow, Connacht welcome in new signings Robin Copeland, David Horwitz, Kyle Godwin, Johnny Murphy, Joe Maksymiw and Colby Fainga’a, with Fijian wing Sevu Reece to arrive in November.

As important as the personnel is how Connacht combine as a squad and Friend is a head coach who puts a strong focus on culture.

“There are certain things that are cornerstones in a successful culture,” says Friend. “The obvious ones are hard work, standards and being able to pull each other up – positive or negative – and doing what you say you’re going to do. Integrity is a massive part of it.

“Listening to the group, those things are paramount to them. The culture can’t just be my culture – it’s got to be our culture. It’s not just the players either, it’s our collective culture as players and staff.

“We’ll find that and hold each other accountable to that.”

- This article was updated at 1.59pm to correct ‘Melbourne’ to ‘Surfers Paradise’.

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Murray Kinsella

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