Friend preparing for a backlash from ‘filthy’ Ulster in quarter-final
If he wanted to, Andy Friend could class this week as a nice bonus at the end of a job well done.
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A top-three finish in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14 has earned the western province top-flight European rugby in 2019-20 and a crack at the play-offs. He’s ticked a lot of boxes.
Twelve months ago, the squad had signed off for the season and were drowning their sorrows after a year of underachievement under Kieran Keane.
‘Mad Monday’, the post-season day out before the squad goes its separate ways for the summer, came early for the western province. This year they’re happy to wait in the hope they’ll have something to celebrate instead of drowning their sorrows.
“Yeah, I don’t feel that as a squad (we have done that),” he said when asked if there was a danger of them losing focus after achieving relative success.
“Probably the only thing I would recognise is that yesterday for a lot of teams was Mad Monday (this week). We weren’t on a Mad Monday, which is good because it shows we are still in a competition.
“There are more than half the teams (in the PRO14) on that celebration, or that commiseration, and it is not us. We know we still have this weekend and ideally a couple of weekends ahead of us.
“No one has actually said anything reflective regarding the year we have had because our year is not finished. We are where we want to be, now we want to push on from here.”
Where they are is in a quarter-final away to Ulster on Saturday. Win, and they face Glasgow away for a place in the Celtic Park final at the end of May.
They have nothing to fear against an opponent they’ve already beaten twice this season, and even if Dan McFarland will have Rory Best available, Jacob Stockdale is unlikely to make it.
In many ways, Friend’s restoration of Connacht’s reputation has been the story of the Irish provincial season. The players have responded to his message and they’ve played some excellent rugby along the way.
The Australian reckons there is more to come from his side as they prepare to make their way to Belfast.
“I reckon they’re ready,” he said of his charges. “I reckon that’s the most exciting thing. I also believe — and I’ve said it a few times — I still don’t think we’ve played our best rugby.
“In the month of April we’ve had 30 players with personal bests, whether it’s on speed in the gym or on body composition. And of those 30 players, we’ve had 52 PBs (personal bests). So we’re still growing as a squad.
“We’ve got this internal competition where they’re pushing each other and people are stretching themselves. The most exciting thing is that I know the 23 we select this week will go up there and we’ve got nothing to lose and a lot of things to gain, so I’m excited by that.”
Perhaps Friend’s greatest success was in washing the bad feeling of last season away.
Understandably, he has tended to sidestep anything that could be construed as a criticism of the way things were before he arrived, but he inherited a team that had underachieved since winning the old PRO12 in such style in 2016.
They may have been at a low ebb, but the Australian proved to be the right man to pick them up.
“On day one, the first thing that hit was that we had a really honest group,” he said.
“We had a very competent coaching, management group, and then when the players turned up you could see that they were all eyes open and they wanted to learn.
“And they were good. I remember the first skills sessions we did and I thought, ‘There’s some quality here, this is good’.
“But they were keen and eager to learn and relationships just built and continue to grow as we go through the years.
“So I honestly reckon we’ve got a really confident group of players who are growing. There’s 50 or 52 PBs in the last month, a really competent, professional group of staff and it’s moving in the right direction.
“So, in a funny way, life is about timing and the timing was pretty good. I walked into a group where there was a lot of talent and ability and just tried to help steer it.”
Having beaten Ulster home and away already, Friend is expecting a response from the home side.
“They’ll be filthy, they should be,” he said.
“We’re at their home again. The reference was made there that we’re the only team to beat them this year, so that gives them another reason to say, ‘You’re not going to do it again’.
“So all the pressure is on us to go up there and try to repeat that. Fine, we’re happy with that. We’re focusing more on ourselves, as we’ve done all of this year.
“You watch their quarter-final against Leinster in the Champions Cup, they were really good. You know that they can rise to that level.
“Good on them, but we know we’re pretty comfortable and confident with what we’re doing as well. It will be a great battle.”