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Aki expected back in Connacht training after visit to New Zealand

The Ireland international midfielder was given some time off last week.

CONNACHT SAY BUNDEE Aki will return to the province on Tuesday after heading back to New Zealand to attend a wedding.

Although the centre was part of a two-day Ireland camp under Joe Schmidt early last week, he was not present at Connacht’s pre-season training for the remainder of the week.

Aki’s absence from Connacht training at a time when many of his Ireland team-mates were back working hard in pre-season with their provinces was unusual, sparking some speculation of a falling out between Aki and Connacht.

Bundee Aki scores a try despite Jack Conan Aki scores a try against Leinster last season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

However, Connacht head coach Andy Friend says Aki is set to be back in the mix this week and will be working towards a return to play.

“He is back in New Zealand at the moment, he’ll be back on Tuesday ready to train with us,” said Friend on Saturday after Connacht’s pre-season win over Wasps.

“We have given him time to go home for a wedding. He was in good shape when he left and we’re looking forward to getting him back and back as part of the group.”

Asked when Connacht fans can expect to see Aki back in action in the Pro14, Friend said the centre “will definitely miss the first few weeks of the competition” as part of the IRFU’s player management programme.

The spirit within the Connacht squad is positive at present and the hope is that Aki can return from his time off in New Zealand to contribute to the cohesive atmosphere that is building within the group under new boss Friend.

The westerners had an important ‘cultural week’ in Breaffy House at the end of July, facilitated by an expert Friend has used before with the Australia 7s team, with flanker Jarrad Butler voted in as the new captain at the end of that camp.

“Part of it was presenting the behaviours as a group that we want to stand for, players and staff,” explained Friend.

Bundee Aki before the game Connacht's players have agreed on the standards they will live by. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Once we announced what those behaviours were we said to the group, ‘Let’s vote on who currently lives those the best’ and that’s how we got our leadership group. Out of that group, Jarrad was number one that the players had voted that lives and behaves best. So it became a pretty obvious choice as to who was going to get that [captaincy].”

Asked for more detail on those behaviours, Friend went on:

“For example, we always put team before self, as a simple example. We’ve got four or five at this point in time that we’ll hold on to, but they are important to the group.

“The group has bought into those, the group presented those as the standards they want to live and the behaviours they want to live, so they are really important.

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“In my view, that’s the way the best teams are built; you have a collective group of standards that are owned by the whole group and then it’s just about living those and holding each other to account to those.”

Aki, like every other player in the Connacht group, will be expected to return to training and live to the standards the squad have agreed upon.

Schmidt, who presented at the Connacht Rugby Club & Community season launch in Athlone before watching the province’s impressive victory over Wasps, indicated that Aki had “trained well” at Ireland’s camp last week before leaving for New Zealand.

“Bundee has been a really solid performer for us,” said Schmidt. “He was Mr Reliable during the Six Nations, not just because of the combative nature, but also his understanding of the game.

Bundee Aki celebrates after the game Aki had a fine first season with Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I thought his pass to CJ Stander for the try against England was superb, it wasn’t just the timing of his run and the offload from Tadhg [Furlong]. He had Garry [Ringrose] on the outside, CJ on the inside and he picked the timing and quality of the pass to perfection to allow CJ to get there.

“Those little nuances that he’s brought and he’s a bundle of energy out on the training pitch and that’s contagious. That’s what we want everyone to have really.”

While the provincial coaches are readying themselves to see less of their international players this season with a World Cup looming next year, Schmidt said that won’t necessarily be the case with the likes of Aki.

“I don’t think there will be any less than there normally is,” said Schmidt. “Because players are managed well, manage themselves, and the provincial coaches manage them really well, I don’t think that’s likely to be the case unless he picks up a knock of some sort and those are the things you can’t really plan for at the start of a season.

“I’m not sure exactly which week Bundee will be back but it will be round two or three, I presume, and he’ll play more than he doesn’t play.”

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