Bundee Aki has reported for Connacht training in ‘incredible shape’ according to Andy Friend, but the head coach is resigned to losing his Ireland centre for much of the remainder of 2020.
Friend’s side will play Ulster and Munster in their remaining two PRO14 games of the season at the end of August, but beyond those games there is very little clarity on what their schedule will be like for the rest of the year.
Aki is set to be called upon as Ireland complete their Six Nations against Italy and France in October, while he is likely to be involved for their new four-game tournament in November and December.
Ultan Dillane, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, and other aspiring internationals could be in the same boat, but Friend knows Aki will almost certainly be absent.
“From us, as a squad point of view, what I’m really happy with, if we were to lose those blokes, we have got depth in behind them now to be able to cover them,” said Friend.
“If they go with this extended (international) window [October to December] it could well be the case that we don’t see them. But again, are they going to be able to do that? I don’t know.
“Bundee has come back and he is in unbelievable shape. He looks hungry, he looks fit and looks so, so keen. Bundee is always keen but he looks especially hungry and keen at the moment. We have seen some blokes come back in amazing shape. People are looking refreshed, the aches and pains are not there.
“So they are coming back and they are saying ‘this is good, we feel really good’. One, the bodies got better. Two, with that the minds got better. And then there has been this huge to get back in which has been good.”
Friend and his fellow Irish provincial coaches will speak with IRFU performance director, David Nucifora, next week where it is hoped further clarity will be available on a calendar and player availability for the new season.
Connacht are still in limbo regarding their European participation next season, and await a decision from the EPCR on the format of the Heineken Cup to see if they have qualified.
Friend continued: “If they do go to a 24-team competition then we will be in it. If it is an 18-team competition we won’t be in it. But there is nothing official that has come through yet. I don’t have any idea. It’s one of those uncontrollable for us. We’ll sit back and wait until they tell us.
“What European competition we are playing in has no significance in how we plan this next period. What we do know – what we have been told anyway – is that from the first weekend of October we have a chunk of PRO14 games – or Pro rugby games – coming up. That’s where our focus and energy is."