Belfast Telegraph

Connacht are going places thanks to their influential Friend

 

Big impact: Connacht coach Andy Friend has worked wonders
Big impact: Connacht coach Andy Friend has worked wonders

By Micchael Sadlier

It really has been an attention-grabbing turnaround.

A year ago, Connacht seemed to have established a firm footing back in the doldrums after finishing well off the pace in the PRO14 and not even their Challenge Cup exit to Gloucester at the quarter-final stages provided much of a lift.

They could have just continued ploughing this rather familiar furrow of existing in the margins and hoping for the best, but Connacht wanted more with their inspiring PRO12 title success of 2016 gnawing at the western province as something which must not be a one-off.

So, an attempted solution. They jettisoned taciturn Kiwi coach Kieran Keane after just one season to bring in Australian Sevens coach Andy Friend, who had, as it happens, been linked to Ulster.

Against the odds, Friend has done a remarkable job to turn things around so quickly with the western province tasting knockout rugby in both the PRO14 and Europe in this campaign while also making their way back into next season's Champions Cup.

And Connacht are playing good rugby too with Friend bringing an attacking plan which dovetails nicely alongside their notable set-piece strength.

The benefits under the Australian's watch have been hard to ignore with the rise of out-half Jack Carty being the most obvious result, though this has also been a good season for centre Tom Farrell and back-rower Jarrad Butler while the second coming of lock Ultan Dillane has been significant too.

Add in the already well-known attributes of Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O'Halloran and Connacht have some quantity of quality.

Friend has not only overseen a change of fortunes on the pitch but has also been the driving force in making the team accessible again, while the Australian has bought in big to the local identity.

While Dan McFarland - a former player and assistant coach at Connacht - has similarly shaken things up at Ulster after just arriving, Friend's achievement is all the more remarkable given resources west of the Shannon.

And not forgetting last October when they also managed to achieve what had seemed forever beyond them by winning in Belfast for the first time in 58 years.

Albeit a mere footnote in Friend's overall plan, it is an important monkey to have shaken off their backs ahead of today's quarter-final and return to the Kingspan where they have been the only side to taste victory in Belfast this season.

They travel with confidence to make it a third win over Ulster in this campaign and their self-assurance is not misplaced.

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