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Connacht generating alternative to Aki's innate energy

The centre is an irreplaceable personality in any team, but Connacht have worked at how they operate in his absence.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

AS IN ALL contact sports, attitude is a key element of defence in rugby, under-pinning physicality, underlining decision-making and overpowering any nagging doubts that body might propose to avoid a 20th bone-shuddering collision.

Few in Irish rugby exude an attitude as tailor made for the task as Bundee Aki. The centre is among the biggest personalities in whatever squad room he enters, with some players happily admitting annoyance at the barrage of verbals he brings into the fray.  Simply put, Aki is a player opponents can’t stand and somebody a team-mate can ride the coat-tails of.

The trouble for Connacht is that, through a combination of player management and injury, Aki has played just six times for Connacht this season, Saturday’s win over Cardiff Blues was just the second time the centre completed a full 80 minutes for his province and now he, along with Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan, has been called back to Ireland duty.

Every team must deal with being without key men at times, but Aki’s inimitable energy and attitude make him a more difficult absence to account for. Not alone is he a talented, powerful, playmaking centre. His vocal presence is strong enough to create a vacuum if coaches are not wary of transitioning into a contest without him.

The centre replacing him may well be able to perform the role, but he cannot replicate Aki’s personality. Nor should he.

“Bundee was a massive part of that in terms of energising and lifting the group. That was recognised, it was celebrated and everyone fed off that,” says Connacht defence coach Peter Wilkins, looking back to his team’s early experiences playing without crowds.

“Then we had a couple of training sessions where we said to him quietly, ‘we want you to stay quiet today and just see what the rest of the group’s response is’.

“You could feel it drop off. You could feel we were pretty reliant on him producing that for us. But I think as the season has progressed there has been a growing realisation, – that other people do need to pick up that slack whether he is there or not.

“You can still celebrate good moments, you can still generate that energy when you need to regain momentum in games where it is maybe going against you. But also you can energise without necessarily being heard, through some other way, in terms of the conversations, the quieter conversations you are having.”

rey-lee-lo-and-bundee-aki-after-the-game Rey Lee-lo and Aki leave the pitch post-match. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Out-half Jack Carty and captain Jarrad Butler are prime examples of leaders who excel in those quiet moments. The flanker was pin-pointed for praise by his coaches after Connacht managed to turn the screw on a match that threatened to get too tight for comfort.

“The scoreboard was tight, but we felt we could get there,” says Wilkins.

“When some of those pressure moments have come on this season and there were decisions to be made about game strategy, we’ve questioned our decisions when we reviewed the games.

“Jarrad Butler did a magnificent job. There were a few moments in the game where he got the boys together, had a quiet word and just refocused and regrouped. That wasn’t by accident, it’s been driven by the leadership as much as the coaching group. They work on it in training and there were some moments when (the game) could have gotten away from us, but the players refocused and re-applied themselves really effectively.”

By design or otherwise, Wilkins credits Aki for a measured performance in the welcome home win over the Blues while the centre was playing to catch the eye of Andy Farrell and earn a run-out against the Azzurri.

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“It was really important for Bundee to get back to us and have that game-time on the weekend just gone against Cardiff,” says Wilkins.

“It was important for us as well, because we all associate Bundee with Connacht. he’s a proud Connacht man. he’d do anything for this team. That’s then in contrast with the minutes he’s actually available for and can actually feel like he can contribute on field.

“I thought it was a really controlled performance. We know he’s a big character and he can be vocal and can be an energiser on the field.

“He did bring that, but I thought there was a control about the way he played. There’s a maturity in that, whereas sometimes it can be tough when you come back for one game knowing you’re going back into the Ireland squad. Because you try to do everything at once and be at the centre of everything.

“Bundee had the balance right at the weekend. In terms of us feeling a sense of confidence and control, Bundee was a large part of that.”

This Thursday, the western province fly off to Italy for a Friday Pro14 clash away to Benetton and they will again need to generate an alternative energy to Aki.

They’re well prepared for it.

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Sean Farrell

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