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Aki return to bring more momentum as Connacht's depth grows

The back row will be difficult to pick if Connacht have everyone fit and firing.

IRELAND INTERNATIONAL BUNDEE Aki is set to make his first appearance of the season for Connacht in Friday night’s Guinness Pro14 clash with Edinburgh at Murrayfield.

Aki took part in the warm-up before Saturday’s bonus-point win over Zebre in Galway on Saturday and also ran on with water and coaching pointers during the game, as he increased his involvement with Andy Friend’s side.

His return to action will be a boost as Connacht face into their first away game of the Pro14 season.

Bundee Aki Aki is set for his return this weekend. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Aki is an obvious first-choice starter for Connacht, although new signing Kyle Godwin has been impressive and Tom Farrell – who Friend said “was crooked” during the week before the Zebre game and therefore missed out – is a key man for the province too.

With his squad’s confidence boosted by the five-try victory against Zebre, Connacht head coach Friend is pleased to have the depth in his squad continuing to grow.

Summer signing Robin Copeland has been sidelined with a quad injury recently but is expected back in full training this week, ensuring that the back row will be particularly competitive.

Sean O’Brien and Paul Boyle were excellent against Zebre, while Friend was able to give new Australian signing Colby Fainga’a his debut off the bench.

“Colby got his first run out and looked pretty dangerous on the ball,” said Friend after his side had beaten Zebre. “Jarrad Butler is the unsung hero here. As a captain, he is just doing everything he is meant to be doing – he’s a great person for Paul Boyle to follow.

“You have got Robin Copeland to come back in. We need depth, we need competition, we need people pushing through.”

Ultan Dillane pulled out of Connacht’s clash with Zebre on Thursday, but the second row is another area of depth for the province, with Quinn Roux and the returning Gavin Thornbury impressing there on Saturday before James Cannon came on.

Friend also welcomed the return of Kiwi hooker Tom McCartney for the Connacht Eagles against Munster A in the Celtic Cup on Friday night.

Lloyd Ashley and Tom McCartney McCartney played for the Connacht Eagles on Friday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Dave Heffernan has started Connacht’s two Pro14 games so far in the number two shirt, but Shane Delahunt has been keeping the pressure on him and McCartney’s return adds another strong option.

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“Tom captained our Eagles side,” said Friend. “He is back on the paddock too. It’s a good headache for us. That’s what you want as a coach, you want headaches.”

Eoghan Masterson [thumb], James Connolly [shoulder], Peter McCabe [thigh], Eoin McKeon [shoulder], and David Horwitz [hamstring] remain sidelined, but Friend is keen for players in the starting team to feel pressure from the rest of the squad.

“That’s the important thing for the players to understand: perform poorly and you ain’t staying there,” said Friend.

Connacht shone in attack at times against Zebre on Saturday, helping to leave behind some of the frustration of the defeat to Glasgow a week before, but it was their defence that pleased their Australian head coach most.

Zebre scored a late consolation try as Connacht had to finish the game with 14 men due to Boyle being injured after the entire replacements bench had been used but the 78 minutes before that saw Connacht comfortably dealing with the Italians’ attack.

“I thought defensively we were much, much better,” said Friend. “We were found napping sometimes last week [against Glasgow] and as a coach, I have to take some responsibility for that.

Niyi Adeolokun celebrates his try with Jarrad Butler Connacht's defence pleased Andy Friend most. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We talked about tempo last week – tempo in a lot of people’s mind is about attack. We didn’t address the defensive side of it, so this week we had a massive emphasis and focus on that defence.

“We talk about our speed to get off the ground and to get back in that defensive line. Our job is to get back to our feet before the opposition half [scrum-half] passes the ball. That’s a little marker we have got. We didn’t do it last week.

“If you go back and watch that game today, we were pretty good at that. That’s a marker that Pete Wilkins has got for us. He has been really strong on that with the boys and they really owned up to that today.”

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