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FEATURE Andy Friend: 'I’m a husband and a father. That is what defines me.'

Andy Friend: 'I’m a husband and a father. That is what defines me.'
1 year ago

Andy Friend is on his way. In fact he has been preparing to leave for the last six months. Bags packed, car loaded, ready to go. Yet something is making him hang around. He may have given Connacht notice back in December that he would be leaving at the end of this season yet there is a reason why he hopes to delay his departure for another couple of weeks.

From the moment he arrived in Galway back in 2018, the Connacht director of rugby has talked ambitiously about delivering a trophy to a province who has only ever won one of those in their 138-year history. Once, in his quiet, unassuming way, he answered a question about this dream of his, the inquisitor wondering if he truly thought Connacht could win the Pro14, as the URC was previously known.

He stared at the journalist for a few seconds before softly replying: “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t believe it.”

So that’s why he isn’t ready to throw the keys back through the letterbox just yet. Outside of The Sportsground, everyone expects them to lose to Ulster this Friday in the URC quarter-final but inside the compact little Galway stadium, there is a genuine belief.

Friend has guided his team to victories in Belfast before now, as well as in Thomond Park and the RDS. So he is pressing pause on his exit, prepared to do something special before he goes.

“Confidence is high,” he said this week, “we are playing good rugby at the moment and there is more pressure on Ulster than on us. They have a weight of expectation on them whereas we are going up to Belfast with nothing to lose.”

Andy Friend
Andy Friend has worked miracles to keep a talented squad together in Galway (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

There’s nothing fake or manufactured about those words.

He doesn’t do mind games the way a Gatland or a Jones would because he doesn’t see the point. At 54 he has lived a life and has also seen how precious life is. Way back in 2009, when he was head coach of the Brumbies, he suffered the trauma of losing a player, Shawn Mackay, to a tragic road accident.

While time passes, time doesn’t always heal.

He keeps in touch with Mackay’s parents because that’s the sort of thing a good person does but also because of a point he made to a couple of years back.

“I have a belief that for every tragedy you go through there is a well of emotion you have to release,” he told us then. “It may come out when the event happens but if you don’t unleash it then, the well remains full, the emotion still there. It is only over time that you get to empty that well.”

There is still plenty of water left. He thinks about Mackay regularly, remembering when he first met him on the Australian Sevens circuit, always finding the first week of April, the anniversary of his passing, particularly tough. “For me, I’ve a feeling of real, lasting sadness,” he told us back in 2021.

He uses three words to describe himself: competitive, considered, caring. On the walls of their Galway training base, Connacht have three words of their own printed in big, bold print: ambition, belief, community.

This context is vital to help you get an understanding of the type of person and coach that Andy Friend is.

His bio will tell you he is Connacht’s director of rugby, that he previously coached the Brumbies, Harlequins and Aussies Sevens teams. But there is a lot more to the man than rugby.

A few years ago, he spoke at a leadership conference, the room packed with business people, captains of industry, when Friend was handed the mic and asked to address the room. He paused before speaking, immediately getting the attention of everyone. “I’m Andy Friend,” he began. “I’m a husband and a father. That is what defines me.”

That sums him up as do the three words he uses to describe himself: competitive, considered, caring. On the walls of their Galway training base, Connacht have three words of their own printed in big, bold print: ambition, belief, community.

Andy Friend
Every coaching environment Andy Friend has touched, has been left in a better place (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

It’s essentially the same message which is why he has been such a good fit in the province.

First there is his work on the training paddock, guiding the team to the Pro14/URC play-offs in two of his five years, which would have been four out of five only for the Covid-enforced adjustments to the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons.

Then there have been the big wins – a first over Leinster at the RDS, a first in Belfast against Ulster since the 1950s, several over Munster, a big one against Stade Francais but through it all he has never got too high by the success nor too down by periods of trouble, such as their losing start to this season.

“Winning is important but so too are relationships and community,” he has said, using the harshness of a Galway winter to his advantage, noting how Connacht people never complain about the incessant rainfall or wind, but get on with it.

As a player he was talented, good enough to play for an Australian schoolboy side that contained Tim Horan and Jason Little. Injuries then got in the way and ended his playing days at 24.

At 5am each morning he walks along the Atlantic shoreline near his Salthill home, often using the early hours to make contact with friends and family back home in Canberra. A hard worker, he also knows how to switch off, sharing a passion for mountain biking and travelling with Kez, his wife.

As a player he was talented, good enough to play for an Australian schoolboy side that contained Tim Horan and Jason Little. Injuries then got in the way and ended his playing days at 24.

He was 26 when he started in this volatile profession, his eldest boy just two months old. Work took him around Australia, then the world, to the Waratahs, the Brumbies, later to England, to Japan and to Australian underage and sevens’ sides. He helped Eddie Jones’ Wallabies reach the 2003 World Cup final, won a junior world championship with the Aussie youngsters, won a tournament on the world Sevens’ series, finished second in the Premiership with Harlequins.

Andy Friend
Friend has been accommodating to the Irish media and will be missed by many (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

Twice he’s been sacked, the first time in 2004 as a Waratahs assistant, just after his eldest boy had celebrated his tenth birthday. The timing was cruel, a new car – a contractual perk – arriving in his driveway the day before he lost the job, his boys loving the motor, the newness and coolness of it.

The following day he turned up for work and was told the job was gone, no forewarning of what was coming. Immediately, he thought of his boys, the car they would have to hand back.

More worrying thoughts would cross his mind. He only had a two-month pay-off, a mortgage to consider, a future to worry about.

Then, a week later, his grandfather passed and that was when the fear disappeared, and perspective arrived. He remembered what he had, not the job he had lost. He used to lop trees for a living and was prepared to return to that line of work in the short-term, all the while knowing that long-term another job would come up in rugby.

From the off he had Connacht playing an attractive brand of rugby but what has been really noticeable since the turn of the year is the steeliness and organisation to their defence.

It did. He did a fine job with Harlequins and then, from 2008 to 2011, with the Brumbies. Again when that job went, he didn’t panic, instead taking six months out of rugby, the house re-mortgaged so that he and Kez could spend time together, three months training preceding a three-month and 5,000 mile cycle tour.

Again work came his way, as he worked in Japan before returning to the Australian Sevens set-up before the call came from Connacht in 2018.

The five years there have been happy ones, personally and professionally.

From the off he had Connacht playing an attractive brand of rugby but what has been really noticeable since the turn of the year is the steeliness and organisation to their defence, the improvement to their set-piece. Since New Year’s Day they have won seven out of eight to shoot into the URC play-offs.

Ulster v Connacht
Before leaving Ireland’s shores, Friend aims to win some silverware, starting with overcoming Ulster (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

“Connacht is in a great spot, and as one of the four provinces, Ireland is in a great spot,” he said last month. “Ireland and Connacht has got a lot to be proud of. They are positioned for a really exciting future.”

He’ll miss it when he goes, noting when he made his announcement that he was leaving that the five years there is the longest he has lived anywhere since the first five years of his life.

“There’s a real attraction to Galway, to Connacht in particular, and this club,” he said at the time. “We’ve loved our time here but all good things come to an end. It’s not at an end yet but it will be tough to leave.”

The good thing is he is doing it on his terms and with the backing of a loyal support base who recognise the miracles he has produced on a smaller budget than Benetton and one not too dissimilar to Zebre’s.

He’ll miss Ireland, alright, but not as much as Irish rugby will miss him.

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