Out West

'We've heard a lot of good stories': Aki looking forward to working under new Connacht coach

The Kiwi centre says the positivity remains in Galway despite a mixed season.

AFTER THE THRILLING, and exhilarating highs, of last season, there was always going to be a comedown for Connacht and Bundee Aki says it’s now up to the senior players at the province to push the group on again.

Bundee Aki Aki and Connacht have been unable to replicate their exploits from last year. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The Guinness Pro12 champions have been a shadow of the side which created history 12 months ago as they head into the final stretch fighting to retain their Champions Cup status.

It’s a far cry from the situation Pat Lam’s men found themselves in this time last year, and Saturday’s visit of Leinster to the Sportsground will provide a reminder of the heights they scaled in 2015/16.

“It was never going to be easy and it’s always going to be challenging, but you can take the frustration out by working to try to be better, that’s all we’re trying to do is to try and get throughout the week,” Aki said this week.

“Things don’t go our way, but we keep trying. That’s all we can do. The more you try and the more you train, it will eventually happen.

“The target remains to get into the playoff for Europe. Every team wants to play in that Champions Cup. That’s where all the best players are, to be perfectly honest.

“That’s our challenge, to keep going and keep winning our games. We’ve got three games left and they’re against three teams in the top four at the moment, so that’s all a challenge and part of making us a better team, to try and get into the Champions Cup again.”

The departure of key players, coupled with injuries and a loss of individual form, have all been suggested as reasons for Connacht’s struggle in a season which has also been disrupted by the announcement that Lam would be leaving at the end of the term.

The news, which was confirmed in December, was met with huge disappointment by all Connacht supporters, and Aki vented his frustration on social media with an ill-advised Tweet he’s since apologised for.

Bundee Aki Aki was speaking at the launch of Kinetica's partnership with Hell and Back. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Both Lam and Aki have been the pillars of Connacht’s remarkable rise and when asked about his reaction, the Kiwi centre insisted that it wasn’t because he had just committed his long-term future to the club.

“I think people were aware of my tweet when Pat announced it, but I did overreact,” he explained.

“Everyone makes their own decisions and you’re either happy with it or you try and make it a positive thing, and Pat’s been a great influence on that team but also on the province as well.”

“The contract side of it had nothing to do with it, I think it was just the relationship I had with Pat. We’re really close – and we still are. We’re really good mates and he’s a good coach to me, and I’ve learned a lot from him.

“Like I said before, I really think it was just the heat of the moment and I said to him, ‘Look, normal people react like that but I’m happy for you’.”

Connacht have appointed another New Zealander, Kieran Keane, to take the reins from Lam and Aki says he has only heard good things about the Chiefs coach who will move to Galway this summer.

“It was always going to be hard for him to leave but he’s been great and with Kieran [Keane] coming in, we’re taking it as a positive, we’ve heard a lot of good stories about Kieran.

“I wasn’t there when he got to the Chiefs but all I’ve heard about him is a lot of good things. The boys are excited and looking forward to seeing what Kieran Keane can bring to us. Hopefully he can work really well for us throughout the years.

Bundee Aki Connacht welcome Leinster to the Sportsground this weekend. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“They’ve [the Chiefs] said a lot of good things, he’s always in the background doing his thing, putting in what he has to put in. The boys say he sits back and is player-driven, that kind of person, but I’ve just heard that he’s a great coach, really, and that you’ll want to learn from him.

“He’s been around the system for a long time so you’d want to learn from him. That’s pretty cool. For me as a person, you want to learn things, and to hear that it makes you want to get into it and take it with two hands.”

While the focus remains on the final few games of this season under Lam, one eye has certainly already turned to next year and it’s widely acknowledged that the new head coach will need to strengthen resources if Connacht are to even consider challenging for another title.

Aki says it is now up to the players who have been in Galway for a while to continue on the ethos Lam has created.

“I think everyone knows what we can achieve if we keep working at it and believe in what we do, and I think the boys know how much work and effort you have to put in to win a competition,” he continued.

Kieran Keane Incoming Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photosport / Joe Allison/INPHO Photosport / Joe Allison/INPHO / Joe Allison/INPHO

“New guys have come into the team and it’s just learning everything. It’s all part of the learning process, really. It’s up to us senior boys to try to keep driving that motivation and that feeling that we had last year, you definitely want to feel that again.

“At the moment I’m sure the coaches are working away at that [building again]. Obviously it’s part of rugby, injuries come and players and coaches leave and go but you’ve just got to know how to adapt to what you have and that’s always been the way.

“We went through a phase last year when a few of us were injured and we lost a few games in a row so it’s how we manage it and how we go about it and as long as we stay positive and keep grinding away it’ll come, it’ll slowly come.

“You can’t dwell on last year because you want to do well again the following years.

“It was the first time ever and it was massive for the province. That will be there forever, really, and we just want to make sure we keep making that kind of history and keep making those play-offs. But we have to make sure we perform week in, week out.”

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