Aki poised for first Connacht match since December

Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen are available for Connacht this weekend as they take on Benetton in their quarter-final of the Challenge Cup.
Aki poised for first Connacht match since December

AVAILABLE: Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen are available for Connacht this weekend. Pic:©INPHO/James Crombie

Bundee Aki is poised for his first action for Connacht since December when they head to Italy to take on Benetton Rugby in a bid to reach the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup for the 12th time.

His Irish colleague Mack Hansen and experienced full-back Tiernan O’Halloran are also available for the trip to Treviso but skipper Jack Carty remains sidelined with a hamstring injury and long-serving loosehead Denis Buckley again misses out with an ankle injury.

Aki looks set to start only his fifth game of the season and has not played for them since the clash in December against Ulster, but former Irish U-20 Cathal Forde has been superb at inside centre since then and the Galway city native looks set for a long stint with Connacht.

A red card after he came on against the Stormers in September meant Aki did not start a game until the end of November and with a training ground incident leading to all sorts of speculation about his future, a return to action for Connacht this weekend should draw a line under all of that.

Connacht have played more games than any other side in the Challenge Cup but have never progressed beyond the semi-final stage, where they were beaten three times, and a win against Benetton on Saturday will set up a quarter-final clash either away to Cardiff or home to Sale Sharks.

Head coach Pete Wilkins said they know they face a tough task to win in Treviso.

“It will be a big challenge, they have a lot of returning Italian internationals and they are a team that thrives at home but it’s a game we feel we can win,” he said.

The announcement that John Muldoon is returning to Connacht as a coach, coming a week after the signing of Argentinian winger Santiago Cordero, and the extension of a league winning run to five games when they defeated Edinburgh at the weekend, has increased the feel-good factor at the Sportsground.

Wilkins, who takes over from Andy Friend in charge of Connacht in the summer, said that bringing Muldoon home from Bristol is a great move and he can build on the good work of outgoing forwards coach Dewald Senekal who is heading to Oyonnax.

“The link has always been there, we have kept in touch. The important thing was to find someone to build on the really good things Dewald has done but also take us on to the next stage and bring their take on it and a fresh set of ideas and a fresh set of eyes, so I think it is a really smart next step for us in terms of managing that forward pack,” he said.

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