Sunday 16 June 2019

Keane: Returning Grand Slam heroes won't be intimidated by anyone

Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Kieran Keane. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Kieran Keane looks to his left at the man sitting beside him, pauses, then cracks a wry smile, before answering the question.

"He brings a number of things, but I can't tell you all of those though."

The Connacht head coach has just been asked about what he believes Bundee Aki will bring to the table when the Westerners' season is put on the line against Gloucester on Saturday.

Hopes of qualifying for the Champions Cup have been majorly hampered by a frustratingly inconsistent domestic season, and all eyes are now on their Challenge Cup quarter-final clash.

Aki's expected return, along with Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane would make Connacht an altogether more dangerous proposition.

"What he'll bring is, he'll bring a threat and presence which will good for us," Keane continues, as Aki replicates the knowing smile.

"It means that we can use him or don't use him in certain situations. But that threatening presence that he brings and the hard edge, will lift the other boys."

The chemistry between the head coach and key man is clear. Their journey is one that dates back to the pair's days in New Zealand, when Keane used to watch Aki very closely.

By the time the 64-year-old had rocked up at the Chiefs, Aki had settled in Galway where he has since achieved cult hero status.

Keane, however, had seen enough of Aki to know that he would eventually play international rugby, and while it came in a green rather than black jersey, he was suitably delighted for a player, whom the All Blacks still believe was one that got away.

"I was quite emotional about this bugger," Keane admits.

"I was very proud of him because the press weren't kind to him prior to it. Well, some of the press, to be honest. Apparently.

"But I felt that he did a wonderful job. It started his (international) career, but now he is going to go away from us. We're not going to get him (often), but we are happy for him - really happy for him.

"I did (believe he would play international rugby). I have always believed that. Even if he had stayed in New Zealand, I think he would have done well."

Connacht will hope that their returning international players will instil the winning mentality that will be needed to beat a Gloucester side who are still well in the hunt for Premiership semi-final spot.

"Well, they bring back an experience factor," Keane insists.

"They're not going to be intimidated by anybody and that's the blessing for us. It brings that bit of chemistry into the group and a little bit of biology too."

Despite the Westerners' inconsistencies this season, they have saved their best form for Europe, and they are due a big performance.

They are unlikely to be back amongst Europe's elite next season via the Guinness PRO14, which makes their Challenge Cup campaign even more important.

"In terms of that, without a doubt," Keane acknowledges.

"There's no grey there. But winning that is not a fix for curing all our ills. I think the issues that we have faced right from the get go is being able to adapt to a new way of playing.

Committed "Different playing group, different coaching group. These things take time. But I'm happy with the way it's going personally.

"I know it has been up and down and I know it would be really, really good for us to get a good result against Gloucester.

"I think we'll have 23 committed players and coaches, totally committed to the task but so will they. There are challenges there. Will it break us? No, it won't break us. If that (Champions Cup qualification) doesn't happen, then it probably says, 'We're not good enough'.

"We've got to be realistic and pragmatic about it. But we will be doing our level best to make it."

For all of that, it wasn't difficult to notice the optimistic mood around the Sportsground this week.

Neither the players nor coaches, are shying away from the importance of beating Gloucester and advancing to the last four.

"Look, there is a great bounce around the team," Keane adds.

"We have got a happy, cohesive team. They know what's at stake. Everybody wants to be selected.

"We name the team later in the week so this is why young fellas play the game.

"It's a big stage. It's an opportunity to show your wares."

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