Tuesday 19 June 2018

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Connacht must learn to live without provincial talisman Aki

Once he becomes an Ireland international, Aki's minutes will be managed and he will miss tranches of Connacht’s season. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Once he becomes an Ireland international, Aki's minutes will be managed and he will miss tranches of Connacht’s season. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

During his three and a bit years in Ireland, Bundee Aki has been an almost ever-present fixture in the Connacht team.

Rarely injured, his performances have earned him a hero's status in the province, but now that he qualifies to play for the national team it seems likely they'll be seeing less of him on a regular basis.

Next weekend, Aki is expected to make his international debut against South Africa and his involvement means he has not been made available for tonight's meeting with the Cheetahs.

Coping without him won't be easy, but is the new reality for Kieran Keane's side for whom Aki is so often the go-to man in defence and attack.

Once he becomes an Ireland international, his minutes will be managed and he will miss tranches of Connacht's season. They'll need to learn to get by.

Tonight marks the start of that process, with Craig Ronaldson and last week's match winner Tom Farrell paired in the centre for the visit of the men from the Free State.

Following a good run of results, a win here would be a further statement of intent.

The expanded Guinness PRO14 opens up all sorts of clashes of culture and coming from the Highveld in spring to the Sportsground in November is quite a change of scenery.

A visit to Parma helped bridge the gap and, having secured their first away win in the competition over Zebre, Rory Duncan's side will be hoping to put some distance between themselves and their Conference A rivals.

Third behind Glasgow and Munster, the Cheetahs are eight points clear of Connacht and a strong performance here can put daylight between the teams going into the two-week break.

Certainly, Cheetahs are a different proposition to the one that shipped 51 points on their last visit to these shores. A run of home wins, including a bonus point victory over Leinster, has helped them to find their feet.

A rainy night at the Sportsground represents a very different challenge for their fliers, however.

Adapting to British and Irish rugby was always going to be a major issue and after a benign autumn this could be the first real encounter they have in the more tricky conditions.

It will make for an intriguing encounter and represents of a good test of what a resurgent Connacht can achieve without their talisman.

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht: T O'Halloran; D Leader, T Farrell, C Ronaldson, N Adeolokun; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; Q Roux, J Cannon; E Masterson, E McKeon, J Muldoon. Reps: D Heffernan, D Coulson, C Carey, G Thornbury, N Dawai, C McKeon, S Crosbie, M Healy

CHEETAHS : F Zeilinga; L Obi, T Kruger, N Lee, M Mapimpi; E Stapelberg, T Meyer; O Nche, T Van Jaarsveld, J Coetzee; C Wegner, H Reniel; P Schoeman, J Wiese, J Pokomela. Reps: J Dweba, C Marais, T Botha, D Visser, R Bernardo, Z Mkhabela, A Mgijima, S Venter

Ref: F Murphy (Ireland)

Connacht v Cheetahs, Live TG4 7.35;

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