Andy Friend: Going for Gold

Andy Friend is currently the Head Coach of the Australian Men’s Sevens team, having been appointed to the position in January this year. With an eye on the Rio Olympics in August, I chatted to him about the game and his coaching career.

In his playing days, Andy Friend was a fullback who represented the Australian Schoolboys team in 1986 and 1987 and went on to play for ACT between 1989 and 1991. He then studied a Bachelor of Applied Science Sports Coaching at the University of Canberra, a Graduate Diploma in Sports Coaching while at the AIS, and is also a qualified Outward Bound instructor.

Andy has an impressive coaching pedigree, spanning the last 22 years, which includes stints in Japan (at Suntory and Canon Eagles), and as the Head Coach of the Brumbies in Canberra and Harlequins in London.

You’ve coached fifteens for a number of years and are now in Sevens. How did that transition come about and to such a senior position?

I had involvement with the Aussie Sevens back in 2005, and I got a call from the ARU asking if I was available to work with Bill Millard, who was the Aussie Sevens coach at the time. I ended up going away with the team to Wellington and Los Angeles for 2 weeks, so that was my first real exposure to Sevens. I gained a lot of respect for the game and the people involved. Last August I was told that the Australian Sevens’ Head Coach position was available, and asked if I would be interested in applying. I said no at the time as my contract with Suntory in Japan wasn’t finishing until April and I wasn’t prepared to leave that. As it turned out, due to the World Cup, the Japanese season was condensed and my last commitment with Suntory was at the end of January. So I went through the selection process and with good fortune, I was offered the position.

How are you finding the role?

I’m loving it! It’s been a breath of fresh air, and it feels like I’ve started coaching again. It’s the same skill sets, but magnified 30 times, because you have to be accurate, whether it be ball-carrying, the breakdown, catching, passing, re-starts and tackling. If there’s an error in Sevens, you may give away possession and, more often than not, points to the opposition. For me, it’s been a real buzz, a steep learning curve, but I’m enjoying working with this group of players and management.

Sevens, despite it being a specialist sport, is still seen as a breeding ground for fifteens. How do you deal with that, and with players coming in and out of your squad according to their fifteens commitments?

That perception may be changing and, hopefully, will have fully changed after Rio. If I think back to 2005, then yes, definitely it was a breeding ground for players who weren’t wanted by a Super Rugby team. They could then trial their skills on a world stage and get to travel around the world and hopefully get picked up the following year in Super Rugby. We’re definitely seeing more Sevens specialists now, and the longer I spend in this program, the more I realise that while they are both games of rugby, they are very different in terms of fitness and commitment to travel. We’ll always have those players who will use Sevens as a vehicle to further develop physically and mentally for fifteens, but I do believe that we will get more players coming in and staying, especially since they have the opportunity to go to the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

Since players are generally raised as fifteens players, how do you turn them into a Sevens player?

Physiologically, there needs to be a massive adjustment in conditioning. Sevens is high-speed and repeat high-speed, and there is a high level of contact so that transition takes a long time. As mentioned before, the accuracy of the skill needs to be high as one error can totally change a game. So players need to work hard to minimise errors.

Are Sevens injuries the same?

Sevens has more lower-limb injuries, fewer back injuries, and more load injuries due to the physical nature of the game. We also travel economy class to 10 different countries per year and, with 4-week turnarounds between tournaments, there’s not a lot of time to recover before you’re back on the plane again. As squad sizes are lower than fifteens, if we have 10 players injured that’s a half of your squad out, whereas it’s only a third of a Super Rugby squad.

What will success look like by the end of your 2-and-a-half year term?

I would like to see us be consistently a top 3 team in the World Series and, hopefully, by then we will have won medals in both Rio and the Commonwealth Games. I’d love the colour of those medals to be gold of course! I’d also like to see us grow our squad depth. We’ve had a lot of guys like captain Ed Jenkins, Con Foley and Cam Clark who have been in this program for a long time and we’ve spent a lot of time building the team profile and the legacy, so we’re hoping that this year all that effort pays off.

Do you think Great Britain will find it tough to put a competitive team on the pitch given that they are an amalgamation of 3 countries?

Yes. The more I’m involved with Sevens, I realise that it requires a total understanding with the six other guys around you on the field and that you play in complete harmony. The more you chop and change players, however skilful they might be, if they’re from different systems and backgrounds of learning the game, the harder it is to gel as a team. It’s going to be a really tough ask for Team GB.

You coached in Japan. What are your thoughts on their playing culture and capabilities? Can Jamie Joseph take them further as a team?

The Japanese are highly committed to excellence, and they train hard. Culturally, that is what you want as a coach. Jamie’s challenge is going to be moving them into the Jamie Joseph era, as for 4 years, they had Eddie Jones rugby drilled into them.

What was it like working under Eddie Jones?

You never stop learning with Eddie. I’ve never met a coach who has worked as hard as him, and his attention to detail is second to none. At the same time, I haven’t worked with Eddie for 13 years, but we have a very different relationship now; we’re very close, and we do a lot of sharing and talking about coaching. I’m sure that his England team is going to be a phenomenal force over the next 4 years.

What are your thoughts on assisting athletes with their transition to a life after sport?

It’s imperative. One of the issues we have is that we have many people casting the net wide to get players into the game, but very few people at the other end helping them out when they enter the big, wide world. I think that it is something that we need to do a lot better. However, it is about resources, and as much as I care about the players that pass through the system, my job is to win games of rugby. But we definitely need the resources to help players with their transition.

The team will be making history in August this year when they become the first Australian rugby Sevens team to take part in the Olympics.

This article originally appeared on the Australian Rugby Business Network website in 2016.


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