Player-of-the-season Aki is a bastion of Connacht’s revival, insists Muldoon
PAT LAM, the head coach, has played a part in the rise of Connacht – a very significant part. John Muldoon, the captain and veteran back-row forward, has made a vital contribution too, embodying the fighting spirit that has taken the Irish province to their first PRO12 semi-final today against Glasgow Warriors.
But, while coach and captain have had crucial roles to play, the real catalyst has been Bundee Aki. The 26-year-old centre from New Zealand was named PRO12 player of the season at a ceremony in Dublin two weeks ago and when presented with his award, mumbled humbly about accepting the trophy on behalf of all his team-mates. But Muldoon, for one, has no doubt that, even if Connacht are above all a very effective collective, Aki is first among equals.
“He’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Muldoon said of his team-mate, who signed two years ago – a year after Lam arrived as coach. “He was very humble on the stage [when he got his award], praising everyone bar himself.
“He’s been very, very good. He came with a big reputation and you can understand why Munster and Leinster were disappointed not to sign him. He’s been exceptional. From our point of view, the leadership he shows on the pitch and the fact that all the lads, all the crowd, everyone gets behind him – he seems to feed off that. The more the crowd go on, the more Bundee enjoys it.
“At the moment, the way the Sportsground is, they’re in love with Bundee and he’s feeding off that. He’s been absolutely superb. Every game he’s played exceptionally well and it’s great to see. His confidence is high.”
Aki lines up as usual alongside Robbie Henshaw in a Connacht team that sees only one change from the side that beat Glasgow two weeks ago – Eoin McKeon for Sean O’Brien in the back row. It is a sign of just how settled a squad Lam has at his disposal, but is also an indication of a relative weakness: Lam’s Warriors counterpart, Gregor Townsend, has far more genuine first-team contenders from whom to choose.
Having said that, the absence of one of those players, the injured Alex Dunbar, could become very significant. Mark Bennett, at centre instead of Dunbar, is the liveliest and least predictable attacking player in the squad along with Stuart Hogg. But he is slighter than Dunbar, and he and Peter Horne are likely to be targeted by Aki very early on.
According to Muldoon, however, Aki’s influence extends well beyond the pitch or the training field. Like his fellow-Aucklander Lam, the centre has embraced the culture of the team and of the province.
“I think when you sign someone you’ve got to make sure [of that],” the captain added. “Galway’s a tough place – it’s not for everybody. A lot of people over the years have struggled, not just foreigners but local people. It’s a unique place and it can be very harsh.
“That’s just the weather conditions. Over the years, we’ve had harsh lessons dealt to us on the rugby pitch as well.
“It’s not for everybody but Bundee has massively bought into it. He epitomises what we like to see and what we’re trying to develop in Connacht. He’ll always try his best and at the moment he’s producing some phenomenal performances.”
And, while Aki is a quiet and unassuming character away from the game, he is forceful and vociferous while with his team-mates.
“We’ve had a couple of characters throughout the years and Bundee’s certainly up there,” Muldoon added. “The way he is on the pitch is the way he carries himself during the week.
“He’s loud, he’s abrasive in training. He gets on people’s nerves at times, he’s your best friend other times, and he can be downright frustrating. But that’s exactly what we see on the pitch – he can be brilliant, and he can be frustrating for the opposition.
“He’s definitely getting better. At the same time, defences are watching him more. The fact that he’s still able to make line breaks and play well shows that he is getting better all the time.”
Connacht (v Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground, today, 6.30pm): T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy, A MacGinty, K Marmion; R Loughney, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Muldowney, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Substitutes: D Heffernan, J Cooney, R Ah You, A Browne, S O’Brien, J Cooney, S O’Leary, P Robb.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC: Connacht skipper John Muldoon has had a good season