Gordon D’Arcy: Andy Friend would do incredibly well as the next Ireland coach

Since taking over at Connacht the coach has created a really stable period of club rugby

Connacht coach Andy Friend with Gavin Thornbury at the Sportsground, Galway. The   attitude of not to “die wondering” has firmly penetrated his squad. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Connacht coach Andy Friend with Gavin Thornbury at the Sportsground, Galway. The attitude of not to “die wondering” has firmly penetrated his squad. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

At some point in the future when the Irish coaching job comes up, I believe the IRFU would be amiss if they didn’t take a drive to Galway and have a conversation with Andy Friend. I think he’d do incredibly well as a national coach.

With the hand he has been dealt and the resources at his disposal in Connacht, the case could be easily argued that in Ireland, he is currently the standout coach.

It’s the way he has the Connacht team playing. The attitude of not to “die wondering” has firmly penetrated his squad. When they decide to go for it, Friend backs them and they are backing each other. When you have that feeling in a squad, good things happen.

It is not an exact science and Connacht are making plenty of mistakes, such as not taking the bonus point against Bristol in Europe, and picking off the back of the scrum in January against Munster (who had two in the bin). At the weekend Connacht attacked Munster extremely well at lineout time, with two attempts in the 22 and scoring from one.

They play this high-tempo rugby and they put a lot of emphasis on skills, passing, kicking, running lines and timing. Tactically, they are trying to be more astute than the opposition because they are not going to be bigger or stronger. But they can be smarter!

Overperform

There is an awful lot of the Exeter model around what Connacht are doing in that expansive game plan, which requires a lot of accuracy under pressure. We’ve seen that a number of times.

What Friend has done is get individuals to almost overperform for him. There are players there who could be lazily labelled as damaged in that they didn’t succeed in other provinces.

One of the things that is incredibly difficult to accomplish well is the transfer of power between coaches. So much so that the success stories are few and far between

You have Gavin Thornberry in the secondrow. Deemed too light to play there in Leinster, he’s now one of the key drivers in Connacht. You look at Tom Daly, Alex Wotton or Sam Arnold. It’s refreshing to watch.

Like Exeter, Connacht take players from other places where they have struggled. They buy into the culture they are offered and then become a representation of that culture.

Layered over that, you have the coaching team pushing and pressing their skillsets. They need to be able to take push passes, have absolute trust in running lines, occasional off-loads and utter belief in the approach they are taking.

They need to be able to create tries differently from, say, the way Leinster do. Leinster in the Pro14 can kick Connacht to the corner. Doing that they know out of four attempts they will probably maul two tries.

Connacht’s Conor Fitzgerald scores a try against Munster in the Pro14 Rainbow Cup last week. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht’s Conor Fitzgerald scores a try against Munster in the Pro14 Rainbow Cup last week. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht don’t have that in their armoury. They have to build scores, use the ball to manipulate defences. One way is arguably a more enjoyable to play and that’s the Andy Friend way.

Look where it has come from. When Pat Lam left for Bristol in 2017, there was potential for Connacht to implode. New Zealander Kieran Keane took over but left after just one season.

Friend arrived in 2018 and although he had lost a lot of key players set about rebuilding from within the squad.

One of the things that is incredibly difficult to accomplish well is the transfer of power between coaches. So much so that the success stories are few and far between.

For example, Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt dovetailed perfectly. You had the dogmatic approach of Cheika, who led from the front, bringing a mental and physical resilience to Leinster. Checks showed us what we had to do to win. However, he was also the chief enforcer.

That growth in the playing group was naturally complemented by the arrival of Schmidt. His detail-orientated approach put considerably more responsibility back on the individuals within the group.

The aim was still to win with standards sometimes impossibly high. However, the standards were maintained by the playing group. The coach empowering players to look after each other was almost as important as what was happening tactically on the pitch.

Tactics are just ideas for people to deliver on the pitch. So when players are looking after each other, it makes the tactics look far more impressive than they might actually be.

That has happened between Lam and Friend. Lam had some unique approaches in Connacht but he got them to their only Pro12 championship win. He was some act to follow as Keane found out.

Then Friend arrived and it is apparent how well Connacht have transitioned and grown under him, creating a really stable period of rugby for the club.

At the other end of the spectrum there are coaches under constant pressure. If you look at the way Richard Cockerill has set up Edinburgh. He plays low-risk rugby. That is a fair representation of Pro14 rugby, which involves over-reliance on tactical kicking, kick to compete, slow-ruck-based rugby.

Glasgow have regressed since Gregor Townsend departed. He had assets like Finn Russel and Stuart Hogg, who played in three Pro14 finals, winning one. Easy to assume they should have been looking to kick on.

Look at how they are playing now. You see flashes here and there of that old attack mindedness. But their conservatism is overpowering, baffling in the Pro14 because it’s not the most stressful league in the world, yet there is such conservatism. Thankfully not under Friend, not Connacht.

What I like about him and his team is that they are massively bucking that trend. They go for it. When you are watching them you kind of have to also go on the journey with them.

If you want to create moments like the try Conor Fitzgerald scored, you are going to have to take the dropped balls and errors under pressure, while applauding that they keep coming back for more.

Mistakes

Against Munster, Connacht were able to kick to the corner with Shane Daly off the pitch, then identified Dan Goggin and created a three against one on him in the middle of the field off a lineout. Fitzgerald galloped right through.

Other times, they turn over ball and it’s “OMG from the edge of your seat”. Then they have to scramble to get themselves out of trouble. But that’s the cake they make.

And it’s a representation of the environment Friend is building. To create a philosophy where players don’t look at those as mistakes. They look at them as part of the game they have to play. Mistakes will happen, and we will have to scramble to solve them.

Your attitude in making mistakes is really important and sometimes that just comes down to the standing you have within your peer group.

It is a fine balance that Connacht are striving for. When things are going well they are naturally feeding off each other to hammer home their advantage

If you take a scenario where a certain person in your squad is a little bit sloppy in training, not wearing the right gear, a wee bit late, a guy you wouldn’t frame as always reliable.

When he makes a mistake it’s hard to bust a gut for 60 yards to pick up a ball because you already have an unconscious bias. Was he doing his best? That’s what comes into players’ minds.

Players like Thornberry or Daly, who are two guys living and breathing Connacht, they throw a pass and it goes to ground or doesn’t stick and nobody even thinks of that bias. Nobody even thinks it. They have earned the right to make mistakes because they have credit in the bank.

Very early in my career I didn’t have that. When I was 18 or 19 years old and just out of school coming into Leinster. I was excited to be out of boarding school but very naive.

When I did stuff that didn’t come off, the lack of trust became magnified. I hadn’t earned the respect of my peers. It took me a long time to earn that trust. But the feeling you get or the emotional security to know you can try something, when your team-mates trust you is so rewarding.

I see it and like it in the Connacht players. You see it in the body language. It requires a high level of skill and accuracy and sometimes it doesn’t go right.

It’s not as simple as all duck or no dinner, Connacht are building something bigger than themselves. They do have big wins and they also have big losses and that’s the journey they are on.

Look how they responded after the Leinster defeat. Leinster scored four mauling tries, however, Munster scored just one maul try out of numerous attempts. With a week’s preparation Connacht countered that threat. Lord only knows how many maul defence sessions they did between games.

It is a fine balance that Connacht are striving for. When things are going well they are naturally feeding off each other to hammer home their advantage. Equally when things go wrong, it seems they are striving to not let it kill their momentum. It’s brilliant to see.

That doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over seasons. For those reasons and when the time comes, that trip to Galway wouldn’t be a wasted journey.

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