Aki appeal rejected as Connacht prepare for vital play-off

Linley MacKenzie

Connacht will head into the Champions Cup play-off without key playmaker Bundee Aki after losing his appeal to have his ban reduced.

Aki, who was suspended for three matches after being found guilty of misconduct towards referee Ian Davies during Connacht's fixture against Leinster, had appealed to the Guinness Pro 12's disciplinary body after having served two weeks.

However the appeal committee of Scotland's Rod McKenzie (chair ), Bill Dunlop and Iain Goodall, upheld the original decision yesterday, and Connacht will now go into the crunch play-off fixture against either Northampton or Gloucester without last season's player of the year.

It is a huge blow to Connacht who are missing a number of players, most notably last season's championship winning pair Tom McCartney and Niyi Adeolokun. And with Connacht's seasonal goals now resting on the Champions Cup play-off, coach Pat Lam says it is "all on the line".

"For me it would disappointing if we don’t make it through [to the Champions Cup]," he says.

Having left their Pro 12 title behind them in Thomond Park - in the end it was relinquished tamely with a 50-14 defeat to Munster - Lam's job is now to prepare a match-winning side in 10 days.

"As coaches we made a conscious decision to give players games, and now we prepare. Its a one-off performance, we put a line under everything now and build towards this game. Playing an English team out of our competition comes with different challenges, and we knew the outcome [against Munster] wasn't going to make a difference for the game in two weeks' time.

"The biggest thing is to get the selection right. Everyone had a fair chance. Guys come back from long term injuries, and obviously Bundee and Tom - two marquee guys are unavailable. That is why we needed to ensure some guys got games and we took that risk because the outcome was nowhere near as important as the process of building, and you do learn a lot from these games," says Lam.

Munster provided a "reality check" for players returning from injuries, he says - "where they think they are and where they really are".

"But the main thing to be determined is how we need to play, and select what we think is the best group to implement the plan."

After a few days off, the squad returns to the Sportsground tomorrow to build for their trip to England, knowing their season depends on it.

"John Muldoon challenged that he'd been in teams that might not have had the same quality of player, but there was a lot of fight, and that all goes into the selection process, that is one we pride ourselves on."

Munster finished top of the Pro 12 championship table, and now face Ospreys in a home semi-final, playing their rugby the way Connacht did last season - with supreme confidence.

"For whatever reason, we haven’t been good enough this year. We have to go up another level again obviously."

Although Lam had demanded a step-up in performance against Munster, it did not materialise. However with new players featuring after long lay-offs, and another new midfield combination, it was always going to be a big ask.

Munster led 24-0 at half-time, an early try from Keith Earls setting the tone. While Connacht missed a glorious chance after Danie Poolman could not control Jack Carty's cross-kick, Munster added to their tally with a penalty before impressive young No 8 Jack O'Donoghue took advantage of some poor defence to cross for the second. Five minutes later fullback Andrew Conway finished a superb passage of play with a try in the corner for their 24 first-half points, outhalf Ian Keatly kicking nine points. There was no respite in the second half - prop James Cronin bulldozed over within two minutes before Connacht were rewarded for a period of domination when Cian Kelleher touched down from Carty's kick, and Craig Ronaldson added the extras. However it was all too brief. Conway bagged his second before replacement Naulia Dawai added some impetus to Connacht's cause, rewarded with a 63rd minute try, with Ronaldson again converting. However Lam's men could not add any more to their score, while Munster finished with another two from Francis Saili and flanker Conor Oliver.

MUNSTER: A Conway; A Wootton, J Taute, D Goggin, K Earls; I Keatley, A Lloyd; J Cronin, R Marshall, S Archer; D O’Shea, B Holland (c ); J Deysel, C Oliver, J O’Donoghue. Replacements: T Bleyendaal for Wootton (47 ), C Murray for Lloyd (53 ), N Scannell for Marshall (59 ), D Kilcoyne for Cronin, J Ryan for Archer, P O’Mahony for O’Shea, F Saili for Taute (all 59 ), T O’Donnell for Deysel (65 ), J Taute for Goggin (70 ).

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Poolman, T Farrell, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, S Delahunt, C Carey; Q Roux, A Browne; E McKeon, J Connolly, J Muldoon (c ). Replacements: F Bealham for Carey (44 ), S O’Brien for Roux, N Dawai for Connolly (both 52 ), JP Cooney for Buckley (59, J Cooney for Marmion (60 ), D Heffernan for Delahunt (63, M Boshoff for Carty (66 ), D Leader for O’Halloran (69 mins ), J Carty for Boshoff (70 ).


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