Andy Friend philosophy can unlock Connacht's potential
Know the game, coach the individual is the mantra of the province's new man in charge
Connacht coach Andy Friend: More by coincidence than design, he has never managed to stay longer than three years in one job. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Back in 1993, after a promising playing career in rugby had been cut short by a knee injury, Andy Friend was working as an instructor with Outward Bound Australia, a non-profit outdoor education organisation designed to provide outdoor education and teamwork skills as well as rising environmental issues. Then, as he recalls it, his team “got lost in the bush” .
This was how he met Kerri.
“She was the person who dropped the food. I always say the easiest way to a man’s heart is through his belly but I basically said g’day to her and she got pregnant. We had our eldest boy Josh and then two years later we had our next boy Jacko and then about seven years later we got married. So we did it all arse about, but she’s a brilliant girl and we’re still together and we’ve got two great boys.”
However it was through meeting Kerri, and the impending arrival of Josh, which prompted Friend to return to rugby and specifically coaching. He traces this choice to “being asked a great question” in his school when he was 16. Everyone in the classroom was asked to write down what they wanted to be one day.
“I sat there with a blank piece of paper thinking ‘I’ve got no idea’. The teacher came over and said ‘your page is blank’. And I said: ‘I don’t know what I want to be’.”
The teacher suggested doing what his dad did, but he didn’t want to be an accountant. The same when he suggested doctor, lawyer, etc.
“So then the teacher said: ‘Let me ask you this, if you were put in a room full of 100 people anywhere in the world, what would be the thing you’d be most comfortable talking about?’ I said: ‘Rugby.’ And he said: ‘Don’t be silly. Rugby is not a professional sport. You’d never do that.’ I went: ‘Why wouldn’t I do that? I can do that.’ So from that moment, rugby has always been my passion, and if I did want to talk about something, that’s what I’d talk about.”
“When Kerri fell pregnant with Josh she didn’t even know I played footy. When she said we’re going to have a kid I said: ‘Sweet, but we can’t stay at Outward Bound. Listen, I used to play a bit of footy’. I went to Brisbane and got a job with John Holland, and Josh was born around the same time I applied for a coaching scholarship (a bachelor of applied science in sports coaching) in the Institute of Sport and started working there (in 1994) two weeks after Joshy was born.”
And here is, 33 years or so later in his office in The Sportsground, still talking rugby.
More by coincidence than design, Friend has never managed to stay longer than three years in one job. “I’ve been sacked twice, but every other time I’ve moved because there was an opportunity to do so. So you go to the next thing. I said the other day on radio we’ve had 15 homes in 23 years, but I actually got that wrong. Kerri said: ‘You missed another three of them.’ So it’s 18 homes in 23 years!”
He’s used the word “welcoming” more than ever before in describing his newest home of Galway and Connacht, not least as “welcome” is the word he’s heard most often.
But Friend also knows what he’s getting into. Connacht have historically been the poor relations of the four provinces, but three seasons ago they won the Pro12 and the heightened support levels have largely remained, along with expectations.
Know the game, coach the individual. That’s his philosophy. He’s had his feet under the table for eight weeks, and overseen an impressive pre-season featuring wins over Brive, Wasps and Bristol.
“I said to the boys last week you don’t win championships in pre-season but you can lose them in pre-season. We’re at the start line now in a good shape and ready to go, but that’s all.”
An engaging, straight-up bloke, who actually believes the media play an important role in telling the stories of players and vouches to the rugby public, Friend is clearly engaging with players, staff and community alike.
He’s also given more clarity to the players, and in turn they already seem to have a better understanding of a framework from which they can play their high-tempo game. The signs are that the players are also being cajoled rather than chastised.
Ask him what he hopes to bring to Connacht, and Friend begins by saying: “Belief. Unlocking the potential that’s here.” And he believes if they were signed by Connacht, everyone has a weapon, which is his focus.
“If we have 15 players on the pitch who are using their weapons to the best of their ability and being world class, why can’t we win it again? So it’s giving them that belief and that simple structure to allow them to play to their potential.”
The middle boy of three, between Dave and Greg, Friend was reared in Canberra by his parents Pru and Brian, who was a public servant in the department of finance. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve lived in a lot of cities and countries around the world, and with all respect to Galway – because I’ve only just been here – Canberra is the city that I love the most.”
“It’s got the four seasons. It’s got mountain biking and bush walking, and good cafes and restaurants and bars – the things that we love doing. And it’s the capital, so it’s got a lot of the taxpayer’s money, with big roads and good facilities,” he says, laughing.
His parents are visiting at the end of September.
“Dad’s initials are B A Friend, and he is ‘be a friend’ for everyone. I’d love a dollar for everyone who’s told me ‘your old man is one of nature’s gentlemen’. He’s just a good man. In the lotto of life, I won that one.”
His dad also played rugby, and all three boys played at Canberra Grammar School. Friend, a fullback, played for the Australian Schools in 1986 and ’87 on the same team as Tim Horan and Jason Little, the famed midfield pairing who went on to be dual World Cup winners.
According to Matt Williams, with whom he would take his first steps as a coach with a professional team at the Waratahs in 1995, in his schools days Friend was reckoned to be every bit as promising as Horan and Little.
“That’s very kind of him,” says Friend. “We had a good side and we actually played against Ireland, who had a five-eighth by the name of Nicky Barry. He was a young prodigy coming through, in 1987, and I scored a try in that game which I reckon to this day is the best I ever scored.”
He’d tipped off his dad before the game about a brilliant move they had, twigging his lower right ear lobe as a signal. “From a scrum, we played this move and it worked a treat. That was a memorable occasion.”
Alas, by then he’d already ruptured his ACL when he was 16 years of age. “I had a doctor back then who said: ‘You won’t play footy.’ I played the next two years in spite of him, because I thought ‘bugger you mate, I’m actually going okay.’ But I had the knee operation and since then it’s been rotten. I had five operations in the space of three years, during which I played 13 games. I had hamstring, quad, groin injuries – everything else, and I just got sick and tired of being sick and tired, so I stopped (playing) and started coaching.”
Instead, he played canoe polo. “It’s brilliant. It’s actually rugby on water,” says Friend, recalling those days with clear fondness.
In his first year at the Institute of Sport he coached seven boys, including Stephen Larkham, Joe Roff and Justin Harrison. Having been the skills coach at the Waratahs for four years, he worked with Eddie Jones at both Suntory in Japan and the Brumbies, and then with the Wallabies in 2002 and ’03 (when reaching a home World Cup final), before he hooked up with Dean Richards at relegated Harlequins, steering them to promotion and successive qualifications for the Heineken Cup.
Friend returned home as head coach of the Brumbies in 2009 and ’10, and after consecutive seventh place finishes, they began his third campaign with a 28-20 home win over the Chiefs and a 25-24 defeat away to the Rebels, whereupon he was dismissed.
“Sacked. Bang. Just like that,” he recalls with a rueful, sanguine smile.
And amid reports of player unrest?
“Yea, true. That’s what happens when players are allowed to have a voice but you don’t know about it. Anyway, it happened. The first time I saw it coming was two weeks out. But in a funny way it was probably the best thing that had ever happened to me, because my wife had just had that injury.”
They were both mountain bikers, and a fall that year had left Kerri with a serious brain injury.
The day after he was dismissed by the Brumbies, he turned down a job offer in Japan. “We then embarked on a pretty big adventure on the bike,” he says. Friend undertook a 5000km journey from Cooktown to Canberra along the Bicentennial National Trail to raise awareness of brain injuries, and Aus$170,000 (€160,000-plus) for Brain Injury Australia and Outward Bound.
“She’s good now, she’s going really well, mate,” he says. “She might be in here soon.” Precisely eight seconds later: “Here’s the lady right here.”
“Mental telepathy,” suggests Kerri, as she walks in to give him the car keys, before walking back to meet a friend in Salthill.
Friend spent four years in Japan with the Canon Eagles and Suntory, before taking over the Australian Sevens, whereupon he stepped down before the Commonwealth Games knowing he would not be kept on afterwards.
“Winning is good. We won some championships in Japan, won the Sydney Sevens and the other high is seeing the players develop and go on to play for the Wallabies or other teams. The low was getting sacked.”
Maybe this stint will endure longer than three years, but he understands the vagaries of his chosen profession.
“I’m on a three-year contract and that’s how we have to think as coaches. You’re on a three-year contract and hopefully we see those three years out and if it goes beyond that, fantastic. But you hope to get to the three years first.”
At the very least, he wants Connacht to be challenging for Heineken Champions Cup qualification, as well as silverware. “If in three years I leave here and we’ve won a Championship and if we’re in the European Cup, brilliant.”