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Optimism abounds as Connacht reboot for the new Friend era
The western province have high hopes they can bounce back after a poor 2017/18 season.

ALTHOUGH THE CLOUDS settled over Ballina RFC in Mayo yesterday, there was no spoiling the feel-good vibes among the visiting Connacht squad.

With new head coach Andy Friend now in place, the westerners are firmly focused on what lies ahead and there is a real sense of renewal within the group.

An unhappy 2017/18 season – in which Connacht won just seven games in the Pro14 and exited the Challenge Cup at the quarter-final stage – ended with Kieran Keane being sacked but the westerners are convinced they can bounce back strongly.

Andy Friend speaks to the kids James Crombie / INPHO New Connacht coach Andy Friend. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

New boss Friend, delayed slightly as he awaited his work permit, arrived last week as Connacht’s pre-season kicked into gear.

Yesterday, the squad visited Ballina, where the mood was optimistic and energetic as the coaches and players engaged with a large group of young fans at Heffernan Park.

Now in their second week of pre-season, Connacht’s players spoke of the positive first impression Friend has made on the squad and his assistant coaches are also delighted to be working with the Australian.

“Minds are at ease that he’s a good bloke, a good coach but also a really, really good person,” said attack coach Nigel Carolan. “What he says is what he does; he’s straight down the line and the lads have bought in straight away.”

Friend’s most recent job was with the Australia men’s sevens team but the 49-year-old has vast experience as a head coach in 15s with Harlequins, the Brumbies and Japanese clubs Canon Eagles and Suntory Sungoliath.

“He’s highly professional, very focused, very disciplined,” said Connacht’s head of athletic performance, David Howarth. “He has a little bit of that hard-edge, not just for the team but for himself as well.

“First thing he was saying to me was that he loves to get on his bike and ride into work in the morning. To see people like that who don’t just talk about culture, but actually live it and demonstrate it day-to-day, that’s really impressive.”

Friend is an attack-minded coach and intends to give his players plenty of scope to express themselves, tying in perfectly with the profile of this Connacht squad.

While Keane – previously an attack coach with the Chiefs in New Zealand – looked to drive the attacking side of Connacht’s game last season, Carolan will be given additional responsibility in this department under Friend.

Finlay Bealham James Crombie / INPHO Prop Finlay Bealham at Ballina RFC. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Friend is also keen for the popular forwards coach Jimmy Duffy and defence specialist Peter Wilkins to have the freedom to show their coaching ability.

The expectation is that Connacht will have an expansive approach with ball in hand, even if they will look to simplify their game plan.

“Our first rugby meeting was basically ‘How do we want to play? How do we want people to describe how we play? What are the big rocks that people will see that are evident in how we play?’” explained Carolan.

“Tempo has been a big one. We’re not going to be the biggest team so we need to have something that sets us apart. Tempo and speed, not just in the physical aspect but speed of thought and speed of action – getting off the ground quicker, getting into position quicker, getting set and being really organised.

“We’ve coupled that with the boys in the S&C department working really hard on the physicality side, ensuring that’s not just left in the gym but transfers into ball-carrying, cleanouts, all the physical aspects of the game.

“Then we couple that with accuracy – everything we do is scrutinised and guys will be sent little videos where they have maybe been sloppy, not even intentionally but where their ball focus could have been better. Those are the three big rocks the lads have come up with and those are the main focuses.”

Connacht’s pre-season is structured slightly differently this time around, with four heavy weeks of conditioning and rugby followed by a down week, before they return to the hard work ahead of friendlies against Brive, Wasps and Bristol.

“We will have a week off in the first week of August, try to let the boys get out of town,” said Howarth. “We’re big believers in that sort of stimulus-recovery-adaptation cycle. After four weeks of consistent hard training, we want them to have a week to relax and adapt.

“We will give them some things to do, we don’t want them to be idle and sit around doing nothing, but we are targeting that adaptation.”

Before that short break, Connacht will have a mini-camp at the Breaffy House Resort where they will focus on building their culture for the season ahead.

Eoin McKeon James Crombie / INPHO Back row Eoin McKeon. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Friend will bring in a cultural expert to facilitate that camp as Connacht look to set standards for how they deal with each other, their daily behaviours inside and outside their training environment, and what they expect from each other culturally.

One small aspect of their culture that is already evident is a renewed focus on engaging with the community around Connacht, as evidenced by the squad jumping on the team bus from Galway to Mayo for the fun and games at Ballina.

Ballina, who had a superb 2017/18 season as they earned promotion into the All-Ireland League, were thrilled to host Friend and his players, while another small batch of Connacht players visited Corrib RFC in Headford, County Galway.

Connacht’s only home pre-season fixture against Wasps will take place at Dubarry Park in Athlone, while there are more community visits planned for the coming season.

“We’ve seen here today that the reach of Connacht rugby is far and wide,” said Friend. “We’re representing everyone in this province and we want to make sure that they’re proud of our performances.

“It’s great to come to Ballina not having been here for a long while as a team, my first time ever. It’s great for us to meet the people here and understand that they’re madly supportive of this team. It’s not a long trip to Galway but they do that every time we play.

“There are young kids here who want to be the next Dave Heffernan [a Ballina native], so it’s really important that our players see it and that the young kids see that there is a pathway, so they can connect the dots in how they’re potentially going to be the next Connacht player to play for Ireland.”

In terms of personnel, there has been change to Connacht’s squad this summer, with hooker Johnny Murphy – formerly of Ulster – joining from Rotherham and Irish-qualified lock Joe Maksymiw signing from Leicester Tigers.

Robin Copeland is an exciting addition from Munster and he has won over his new team-mates with his positive personality.

“Robin has been a breath of fresh air,” said Carolan. “He’s a different type of player. He’s had so much input into our rugby identity and how we do things already and he’s not afraid to offer his input.

Robin Copeland James Crombie / INPHO Robin Copeland has been a popular addition. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s been really welcomed and he’s really positive and all-action. We’re really excited to see how he integrates into how we play.”

There are also four more new signings still to arrive, with the Australian trio of Brumbies centre Kyle Godwin, Waratahs playmaker David Horwitz and Rebels back row Colby Fainga’a due to arrive when their Super Rugby commitments end.

“I haven’t coached David or Kyle but I’m very familiar with them,” said Friend of the new Aussie additions. “David is a quality inside back who can play 10 or 12, he’s got a good running game, a good passing game.

“Kyle Godwin’s a very good athlete and I was really excited by him as a footballer when I first saw him at the Western Force. He had a run of niggly injuries, nothing serious but they probably held him back a bit. He’s got great capability and potential so trying to unleash that here for him will be important.

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“I signed Colby out of school when I was at the Brumbies, so I’m very aware of his ability. I’ve coached him and he’s a prolific talent in my view; he’s great over the ball, he’s got great instincts there, he’s a good link player and he’s a very strong ball carrier.

“He’s also a good family man and he’s just played his 100th cap in Super Rugby, so he’s robust and he will be a great addition.”

November will see the arrival of Waikato wing Sevu Reece, with the Fijian something of a wildcard signing – capable of sensational attacking moments but still raw.

“There is a little bit of unknown in terms of how he will get on and maybe there’s a risk factor but we know he’s an x-factor player,” said Carolan. “We’ve got some real competition in the back three but he’s a little bit different to what we have.”

Connacht have lost flanker Jake Heenan to Bristol, while a raft of squad players have been released, but the biggest blow came with the retirement of their legendary captain John Muldoon.

Copeland will look to fill his boots in terms of the number eight position, but Connacht have yet to appoint a captain to succeed Muldoon – their camp later this month is likely to see that position decided upon.

Ultan Dillane signs autographs James Crombie / INPHO Ultan Dillane in Mayo yesterday. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Tiernan O’Halloran has impressed the coaches with his leadership in the opening weeks of pre-season, while hooker Tom McCartney and back row Eoghan Masterson are also influential within the squad.

Australian openside Jarrad Butler is perhaps the strongest contender to lead Connacht, however, having had a superb first season in Galway to earn major respect from his team-mates.

“Mul has been an institution of Connacht rugby since god was a child!” said Carolan of the Portumna man’s departure to take up a role as defence coach with Bristol.

“It’s time for others to step up. The lads are in their mini-teams even today with the kids in Ballina and naturally players rise to the surface. It’s a big hole Mul left behind and we’ve got to encourage players to step up and promote them to step up.”

It’s remarkable to think that this is the first time in 16 years that Connacht have gone into a season without Muldoon around, underlining that it is truly the start of a new era.

Lock/back row Cillian Gallagher, second row Peter Claffey, and prop Conan O’Donnell – all of whom have advanced onto senior professional contracts – are among the young players impressing early in pre-season and Connacht are hopeful that their academy will continue to produce homegrown players.

In the shorter-term, they are looking for far greater consistency under Friend, after last season saw the province enjoy several highs before hitting troughs that Carolan admits “were a bit too deep.”

Summer is always a time for optimism, but Friend is determined that the good vibes will keep rolling into and beyond the wet and windy winter months at the Sportsground.

“For me, success is that every time we walk off the paddock, we know we’ve given everything we’ve got,” said Friend.

“If we do that, we will produce more wins than losses but we want to be really proud of the performances we put out there and we want the people of Connacht to be really proud of the performances we put out there.”

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