Thursday 17 October 2019

Aki returns to lift Connacht but Sharks' bite could prove too strong

Bundee Aki during Connacht squad training. Photo: Sportsfile
Bundee Aki during Connacht squad training. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The last time Connacht met Sale in the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup, it was a two-legged affair and the English side progressed to reach the 2005 final.

This year, it's the best of three as the teams who met in the pool stages with one win-a-piece go head-to-head for a semi-final spot.

Connacht have been a different team this season, tonight they'll hope that this won't be the same old, same old. Apart from the 2010 run to the last four, the province have found the quarter-finals to be a glass ceiling. They've given it a good shot against Gloucester and Grenoble in recent years, but come up short.

The next two months will test Andy Friend's resources as he fights on two fronts. The Australian has made wholesale changes to the team as expected, bringing Bundee Aki, Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion into the backline, but opting to give Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane the weekend off.

Momentum Sale Sharks coach Steve Diamond picks a side that features England star Tom Curry and Springbok scrum-half Faf de Klerk, but perhaps the most intriguing name on their team-sheet is AJ MacGinty.

The Irish-born, USA international won the 2016 PRO12 with Connacht and knows the visitors well. Even without Chris Ashton and James O'Connor, there are weapons a-plenty outside the Dubliner and he'll be tasked with unlocking his old team's defence. Sale won the first fixture between the teams in the pool well at the AJ Bell Stadium, while Connacht won the return.

Friend believes this Connacht side are a different animal.

"It is a different style of football we are playing," he said having watched those games back this week.

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"Just a lot more confidence in what we are doing, a lot more accuracy. Our line-speed is a lot better. The accuracy in our collisions is a lot better in both attack and defence. We have definitely grown as a group.

"If I look at the Sale team, again very similar bodies and the squad doesn't seem to change that much. But they are at home and it is going to be a big night for them."

Connacht have improved, but this may prove a step too far.

Verdict: Sale Sharks

SALE SHARKS - L James; D Solomona, S James, R Janse van Rensburg, B McGuigan; AJ MacGinty, F de Klerk; R Harrison, R Webber, J Jones; B Evans, J Phillips; J Ross, T Curry, J Beaumont. Reps: C Langdon, T Bristow, A Tarus, J Strauss, B Curry, W Cliff, C Redpath, A Reed.

CONNACHT - D Leader; N Adeolokun, K Godwin, B Aki, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; P McCabe, T McCartney (capt), D Robertson McCoy; J Cannon, G Thornbury; E Masterson, J Connolly, P Boyle. Reps: D Heffernan, D Buckley, F Bealham, J Maksymiw, R Copeland, C Blade, T Daly, S Fitzgerald.

Ref - M Raynal (France)

Sale Sharks v Connacht, Live, BT Sport, 7.45

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