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'He doesn't want that to be the peak of his career' - Aki determined to build on Lions experience

The centre is in line to feature against Munster this weekend.

Connacht centre Bundee Aki.
Connacht centre Bundee Aki.
Image: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

THERE IS MIXED news on the injury front for Connacht this week, with one in-form centre set for a spell on the sidelines as another key man prepares to make his seasonal bow.

The province have confirmed that Tom Farrell, who made such an encouraging start to the season, is awaiting surgical consultation after injuring his shoulder in last weekend’s defeat to the Dragons. After missing so much rugby last year, it’s a disappointing blow for the 28-year-old which comes just as the season is beginning to heat up.

Connacht are not yet sure how long Farrell is facing out.

“It’s difficult for me to say at this point,” explains senior coach, Pete Wilkins.

“You’d never wish it on Tom, particularly with the rugby he was playing, and at this time of year and with these games coming up it would be great to have him still with us and in-form and be able to show the whole country what he can do.” 

Connacht can at least turn to an able replacement, as Bundee Aki prepares to step into the breach for Saturday’s trip to play Munster.

There aren’t too many Test Lions walking around the west of Ireland, and Wilkins says the province are hoping to tap into some of the invaluable experience Aki picked up with Warren Gatland’s tourists over the summer.

bundee-aki Over the summer, Aki became Connacht's first Lions player of the pro era. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s really interesting, I think the informal chats you can have with him about what the Lions environment was like in terms of how they played, how they coached, how they ran training sessions, but also the off-field bit – how you bond a group of players together that have come from different teams and different backgrounds.

“He’s come back proud of what he’s achieved, both from a personal level but also in terms of representing Connacht and representing the fact that he’s done it on the back of his form for our province and for Ireland, and I think that’s tremendously important to him.” 

Aki has sat out the opening three rounds of United Rugby Championship fixtures as he rehabbed a neck issue, but is now back in contention to play in Thomond Park this weekend.

When he returned from South Africa, Aki found a Connacht squad getting used to a new coaching set-up and a new style of play. According to Wilkins, it didn’t take him long to get back up to speed.

“He’s come back very level-headed and he’s got both feet on the ground. He’s worked incredibly hard to get his body right after what was a really bruising campaign over there and on the back of the season he had. 

He’s launched into his conditioning work to get himself up to speed and to get himself ready not just to play, but to play the type of rugby we’re endeavouring to put out there. And he’s worked incredibly hard then to learn what we are trying to do and understand what the new coaches want from him or what the new strategies need from him. 

“So there’s been a real grounded nature to how he’s returned, and he’s managed to balance that.

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“Still the typical Bundee, effervescent and providing energy to others, but there is a steely look in his eye that he doesn’t want that (Lions tour) to be the peak of his career, and that’s brilliant for us.”

His return represents a timely boost as Connacht prepare to face a Munster team who have made an unbeaten start to the season.

“Obviously the physical confrontation he brings on both sides of the ball, as a defender and as a ball carrier, even the 1% efforts, cleaning a player out from the ruck and working back off the ground, he has this enormous intent and energy that comes with everything he does.

“As well as that being important in terms of making dents in the opposition, it lifts his teammates around him and it lifts the entire changing room. As a barometer for us, it’s great. 

“But what’s important is that we’ve also played some really good rugby without him, where once upon a time we might have relied on him to lift that level of energy and that emotional pitch for the group – actually we’ve shown we can deliver on that, and he can now only add to that, help lead it and drive it.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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