Player-of-the-sea­son Aki is a bas­tion of Con­nacht’s re­vival, in­sists Mul­doon

The Herald - Herald Sport - - RUGBY UNION - STU­ART BATH­GATE

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

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