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Ex-Connacht man Ahki wary of threat Ulster's McCloskey poses to Toulouse

The New Zealander enjoyed his time in Galway but has thrived with the Top 14 club.

HE ONLY PLAYED for Connacht seven times during his brief spell in Ireland but Pita Ahki got a decent sense of Irish rugby, which has helped in his appearances against the provinces since joining Toulouse in 2018.

The New Zealand native arrived in Connacht in October 2017 after Fijian centre Eroni Vasiteri’s move to the province was cancelled following an eye-gouging ban.

Then-Connacht coach Kiernan Keane knew Ahki from their time working together in Waikato and the powerful midfielder made a decent impact in Galway but it felt like he was out the door before he’d even really started to settle in.

pita-ahki-scores-a-try-with-the-help-of-antoine-dupont Ahki scores against Connacht back in January. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“I enjoyed my time there,” said Ahki this week as he and Toulouse get set to face Ulster in Sunday’s Champions Cup quarter-final. “I love the city, Galway… not so much the weather, it was raining all the time.

“But yeah, it was a bit different to back home, the playing styles and the style that we played.”

Ahki got a “warm welcome” when he returned to the Sportsground with Toulouse earlier this year, although the western province’s fans weren’t too happy when he scored a try in the French side’s pool-stage victory.

The 27-year-old has been thrilled at how his move to Toulouse has worked out, particularly having won the Top 14 at the first time of asking in 2018/19, with the former New Zealand U20 and Sevens international particularly enjoying their style of rugby after working under Keane in Connacht.

“The big one for me is just that here in France they love to keep the ball alive,” said Ahki. “Just offload as much as they can, especially in Toulouse. That’s what we’re built on.

“At Connacht, when I was there with KK, we were very structured and things had to be done a certain way.”

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Ahki takes pride in the defensive side of his game, with Ugo Mola and the Toulouse coaching staff backing him to be a leader in that area, meaning he’s relishing the challenge of coming up against an Ulster team that likes to play at a high tempo.

pita-ahki Ahki during his time in Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They’re just real hard-working, they never give up as we saw in the semi-final [against Edinburgh in the Pro14], they were down most of the game and won it in the end,” said Ahki of Ulster.

“They’ll build a lot of phases, they’re a team that pulls a lot together and they’ve got big ball-carriers like Stuart McCloskey and guys that direct them pretty well like Burnsy [Billy Burns] and John Cooney, and obviously Alby Mathewson coming off the bench as well, so they’re a pretty well-drilled team.”

The midfield battle will be an interesting one as Ahki lines up opposite the imposing McCloskey, who he knows is a key figure for Ulster in terms of providing momentum but also bringing team-mates into the game.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on him and the whole team knows he’s a good player, tall, loves an offload.

“He’s definitely a threat for Ulster.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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