Bundee gives Connacht a boost

Bouncing back: Bundee Aki's return to full training is a big boost to Connacht ahead of the closing stages of the season. Photo: Sportsfile

Bouncing back: Bundee Aki's return to full training is a big boost to Connacht ahead of the closing stages of the season. Photo: Sportsfile

Player of the year Bundee Aki is one of several players hoping to make a return to action for Connacht this weekend.

Aki, who was the "waterboy" in Connacht's hard-earned win over the Dragons, fellow centres Stacey Ili and Eoin Griffin, fullback Cian Kelleher and lock Andrew Browne, have all returned to full training this week and are available for selection for Connacht's visit to Italy where they face Treviso on Sunday.

It will be a big boost for the squad as they face into a series of season defining matches, and Lam says Aki's leadership cannot be underestimated.

"He really wanted to run the water on the weekend," said coach Pat Lam. " He came to see me, it's not many people who volunteer to be the water boy, just to get the feel of the atmosphere again and get back out there. He's one of the leaders and can get the messages out there."

"He's loving being back. He is the John Muldoon of the back line and a lot of what we do, it's not just his obvious ability, but his leadership is massive, calling the shots. And he is big for Jack [Carty] as well, and Craig [Ronaldson], so you see the difference when he is there."

Lam says Aki's absence for the previous 10 games following ankle surgery has also been positive for the other players.

"The good thing while he was away is that it has enabled other guys to understand where the standard is, and that is giving them a chance as well."

Although Aki has attended meetings and reviews, Lam says he has been missed on the training pitch where his influence is greater. This week is particularly crucial after last weekend's poor attacking display.

"This training week is massive because we have more time, and then we have only a five-day turnaround, so the good thing about these guys coming back is they jump into the bigger pot of players. There is no doubt it will not be the same team that plays this and the following week, can't do it. It doesn't mean some players won't double up, but I can tell you now the team against Zebre will not be exactly the same 15."

Lam is particularly mindful that Connacht have lost to the Italians in Treviso on two occasions - his first visit, and again last year when Connacht were heading towards a Pro 12 final.

"It is the mental challenge we face, hence the reason had a good couple of days on the back of what happened last week. Normally people go back-to-back wins, and it's all good, but we are not happy. We know we have to prepare, we have a big physical session this week, which will be pretty full on, and that is part of the mental prep for what is a big game."

Still sitting in eighth place, but having closed the gap on Cardiff and Glasgow, Connacht have a real opportunity that they simply cannot spurn to grab vital points in that search for Champions Cup rugby. And after last weekend's 14-9 win, Connacht's execution and decision making will be under the microscope in their failure to grab a bonus point.Having dominated territory, possession and scoring chances, they were then left clinging to victory at the Sportsground.

"We didn't perform the way we should have to make the most of the opportunities we had," said Lam. "It is fine lines. Ultimately we are judged on performance. Certainly a lot better than we have been, and defensively one of the better in keeping teams out. We had lapses in the past and in this game we had three or four big scrambles which highlights the character, but we are all obviously disappointed."

Connacht's 96 per cent tackle count ensured a first try clean sheet this season, but their failure to secure clean line-out possession and produce last season's clinical finishing had then under pressure despite the best possible start.

oked promising when fullback Tiernan O'Halloran scampered across the line in the fifth minute and centre Craig Ronaldson, on kicking duty for the first time since returning from injury, added the conversion to put Connacht in front. Nine minutes later Connacht had grabbed another after prop Denis Buckley turned over possession inside their own half. O'Halloran and Niyi Adeolokun took play inside their opponents' 22 and scrumhalf Caolin Blade, a replacement for Kieran Marmion who had been on Ireland training duty on Friday, snaffled possession to dash through for the second, with Ronaldson again converting.

However Connacht were not to score again, despite creating several clear-cut chances, and that failure gave the visitors hope as they lifted their game in the second half. Dragons fought back with two penalties to close the gap to 14-9 after 51 minutes, and although unlucky when denied a try after replacement scrumhalf John Cooney was a foot offside, Connacht will rue missed opportunities.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, T Farrell, C Ronaldson, M Healy;J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, QRoux; S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (c ).Replacements: J Cooney for Blade, T McCartney for Heffernan ( both56 ), N Fox-Matamua for Dillane (62 ), J Cannon for Roux (68 ) R Paratafor Ronaldson (76 ), J Cooney for Bealham and R Loughney for Buckley(77 ).

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