If the words of praise from Rugby Australia which greeted Andy Friend’s departure as their men’s sevens head coach ring true during his next venture as Connacht boss, then the Westerners really will have made a serious appointment.
Friend, 49, was yesterday unveiled as the man to pick Connacht up by the bootstraps and help them unleash the potential which was last realised in May 2016 when Pat Lam’s team upset the odds and won the Guinness PRO12 title.
The Australian has had a professional coaching career spanning 23 years, taking in head coaching roles at the Brumbies in his hometown of Canberra, Harlequins, and two Japanese clubs, as well as assistant roles with the Wallabies under Eddie Jones.
The most recent testament to his management skills comes from his two-year spell for Rugby Australia, where his transformative influence at the helm was such that the union wanted to keep him within their structures and were developing a new position with Friend in mind.
“Andy is an incredibly experienced coach and he has done a first-class job in developing and implementing a quality professional program,” Ben Whitaker, Rugby Australia’s high performance general manager, said in March when announcing Friend’s decision to stand down as men’s sevens head coach.
“He has demonstrated a great ability to advance players, on and off the field, and produce an outfit that is now capable of competing with any team in the world.
“The men’s sevens programme has been through a generational change under Andy and the performances of the team have become more consistent and high level, highlighted by their first World Series tournament win in six years at the Sydney Sevens earlier this year.
“When Andy departs he will leave a significant legacy with the men’s sevens programme and we have already opened discussions with Andy about transitioning into another role within the organisation.”
Two months on and it is clear the Aussies failed to get their man and that Connacht are the next recipient of Friend’s experience, the province having captured their replacement for Kieran Keane on a three-year contract.
Keane had been dismissed earlier this month after a painful, solitary season in charge as Connacht struggled in the absence of Lam, who had departed for Bristol Rugby.
In truth they had struggled with Lam, their title defence falling quickly away in 2016-17 after their head coach revealed his plans to depart for the English Championship club and left his players with a dead coach walking.
Yet under experienced New Zealander Keane, brought north of the equator from his role as attack coach at the Chiefs, Connacht slipped further off the pace and finished second from bottom of Conference A with seven wins.
More tellingly, they were 24 points off the play-off positions and, despite a last hurrah at the Sportsground when they put a second-string Leinster to the sword on the final day of the regular season, Keane received his marching orders on May 11.
When Friend arrives for the start of pre-season in late June, the new man will have several pressing issues, not least the absence of provincial legend John Muldoon, whose retirement was compounded by the decision to take his considerable intellectual property over to Bristol and start his coaching career with old boss Lam as they return to the Premiership next season.
Friend’s coaching experience at the highest levels of the game, including helping Wallabies boss Eddie Jones to the 2003 World Cup final and his record of transforming an ailing men’s sevens programme in Australia, will be key to Connacht’s progression next season.
“I am extremely excited and honoured to be appointed as head coach of Connacht Rugby,” said Friend.
“Connacht is a proud province with huge potential to build on the success of recent seasons. I look forward to meeting the players, staff, supporters, and wider community when I arrive in the Sportsground ahead of the new season.”
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