Connacht forwards coach Jimmy Duffy says new Irish international Bundee Aki is ready to return to action on the Challenge Cup trail against Brive this weekend.
Centre Aki played his first two games for Ireland in their wins over South Africa and Argentina during an impressive autumn series.
The 27-year-old New Zealander joined Connacht from the Chiefs in 2014-15 and has racked up 67 appearances, scoring seven tries.
And with fellow Kiwi centre Pita Ahki registered for his first taste of European action, Duffy says Connacht have options.
“Bundee is back available for selection. We have a pretty strong squad list to choose from at the minute,” said Duffy.
“It’s never down to one player. We would look at the options that we have and combinations we have.
“A player of Bundee’s ability is obviously always welcome to have back in the group.
“But we are still working through a few things and looking at options for the weekend.”
Connacht have lost against Cardiff Blues and Zebre in the PRO14 recently but they will be looking to bounce back and stay top of Pool 5 in the Challenge Cup at Stade Amedee-Domenech. But openside flanker Jake Heenan could have played his last game for the province after undergoing surgery on a shoulder injury he picked up in defeat to Cardiff on November 24.
Heenan is believed to be on his way to join Pat Lam at Bristol at the end of the current campaign, but Duffy is hopeful he could feature again in a Connacht jersey.
“Jake is a super guy on and off the field. He always delivers on the field and off-field his leadership is a real strength,” said Duffy.
“It’s tough. A really attritional position and we are really disappointed for Jake to have an injury.
“But in terms of someone that has had injuries in the past, I have yet to see a player that has worked as hard to get himself back in a position to play as soon as possible.
“Speaking with him last week, he is really determined to get back fit as quick as he possibly can.
“He will give himself every opportunity to get back by working hard with the medics here and S&C staff to get himself in the physical shape to get back and perform.”
And with Munster struggling to hold onto their captain Peter O’Mahony for next season Duffy is fearful of the financial clout of the English and French clubs.
“It’s just the landscape out there at the minute. There is not a lot that I or we can do about it,” said Duffy.
“We just have to make sure that the environment we have here is productive and players get better in that environment.
“And it’s a good place for players to learn their trade and hopefully experience
a high level of professionalism. That’s an offering we provide.
“It’s just part of it and it’s the way the game is unfortunately.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved