Finlay Bealham (L) and Bundee Aki. James Crombie/INPHO
Challenge Cup

Connacht boosted by returns of Aki and Bealham for trip to Pau

Scrum-half Caolin Blade is among those who have also been passed fit for the trip to France.

CONNACHT HAVE BEEN boosted by the return of their two Irish Six Nations players Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham as they bid to secure a quarter-final spot in the European Challenge Cup away to Pau on Sunday evening.

Connacht, who have played more games in the competition than any other team in Europe but have never reached the final, will head to France on the back of two demoralising URC defeats at home to the Lions and away to Benetton.

But the return of Aki and Bealham after their Six Nations duty is a timely boost for head coach Pete Wilkins who is hoping to turn their season around on two fronts heading into the business end of the season.

“Yeah, they are fit for selection,” said Wilkins as he also welcomes back a string of players for this knockout match. “It’s huge for us. Both are massive personalities in terms of the energy they give to the group and how popular they are around the place. They are massive in that sense culturally but then they bring that rugby intellect, experience of big games, knockout games, and it is great for us to have them on board and I think they will play a key part not just on the weekend but in our whole preparation leading up to that.”

Connacht are also boosted by the return from injury of scrum-half Caolin Blade (Achilles), hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin (neck), back-three player John Porch (knee) and number eight Sean O’Brien (thigh), while out-half JJ Hanrahan and back-rower Conor Oliver have both completed the return-to-play protocols after suffering head injuries in the 38-14 loss to the Lions.

However, injuries picked up by scrum-half Michael McDonald (foot) and winger Diarmuid Kilgallen (shoulder) against Benetton last weekend have ruled them out, while winger Byron Ralston and number eight Sean Jansen remain sidelined with ankle and groin injuries respectively.

“There are a few fellas there who have been incredibly disappointed to have missed out on the opportunity during this middle chunk of the season because there have been some massive games, but they are coming back at the right time for us,” added Wilkins.

He wants them to bounce back after those two URC defeats and nail down a Challenge Cup quarter-final either away to Benetton or home to the Lions, depending on who wins their clash in Treviso.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us. It’s good timing in terms of the challenge and the timing, the type of venue and type of opposition we are playing. It won’t be too different from our Benetton experience in terms of our travel and the type of conditions we are playing in, and in terms of the type of team we are up against,” added Wilkins.

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