Wednesday 11 December 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'IRFU must back Connacht by prioritising deal for Bundee Aki'


Bundee Aki
Bundee Aki
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For a good 30 minutes they stood in the cold, chanting relentlessly until their hero emerged. If you're in any doubt as to the importance of Bundee Aki to Connacht, you just had to listen to the children who refused to leave the Sportsground last Sunday until they'd caught a glimpse of the Ireland centre.

Although Mils Muliaina was the bigger name, the capture of the Chiefs centre was a statement of intent from Pat Lam and the province back in 2014.

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They beat Glasgow and Munster to his signature and within two seasons they won the Guinness PRO14. Since then, they've been in a rebuilding phase but their Ireland starter has remained a consistent performer.

If they are to continue to build under their impressive coach Andy Friend, they must hang on to their franchise player.

Persuading Kieran Marmion to stay for three more seasons after he came in for interest from a number of clubs and dealt with the disappointment of being dropped for the World Cup was a significant piece of business for Friend.

Although he'll play a role in convincing Aki to remain, it is IRFU performance director David Nucifora who will do business with the New Zealand-born midfielder and his representatives.

Circling

As one of the premier centres in Europe, it's no surprise that the big-spending French clubs are circling and Aki will know his own value.

He was not born here and had no connection to Ireland before arriving five years ago, but he has delivered on every aspect of the contract he has signed and if he chooses to go elsewhere to earn a living, he should go with no ill will.

It is up to the union to pay him what he is worth and, if they lose him, they risk setting Connacht back a number of seasons.

Last Sunday was a reminder of the value of having Connacht as a strong proposition.

Despite being down 16 injured players they went toe to toe with one of the most expensively-assembled squads in Europe.

Montpellier's €33.8m budget dwarfs the one Andy Friend is working with; while they brought World Cup winners off the bench, he was calling for little-known academy graduates with limited experience.

And yet, they perform and add to the Ireland mix. As well as producing its own talent like Jack Carty, Caolin Blade and Denis Buckley, the western province offers a route to professional rugby for the likes of Paul Boyle, Tom Daly and Conor Fitzgerald, who were let go by their home provinces.

The playing pool is enhanced by recruits like the talented Colby Fainga'a and the soon-to-be-Irish-qualified Jarrad Butler, while Robin Copeland showed what he's capable of against Montpellier after a mixed first season in green.

It is a collection of players with something to prove under a clever, driven and well-liked coach who drives them to high standards and gives them the tools to thrive against the odds.

They were handed a tough draw for the Champions Cup and, while their home win on opening weekend keeps them in the hunt, they'll do well to qualify for the last eight.

After Sunday's win, Friend outlined the challenge they face in terms of resources. While their rivals charter flights to away games, Connacht will travel with commercial airlines to Toulouse; meaning two extra nights on the road.

It may not seem like much, but it's the type of thing their rivals wouldn't consider in this day and age.

Until the Sportsground is redeveloped, and there's no sign of an announcement of the large-scale sports capital grants they're waiting on, they will continue to train on a heavy pitch and operate in a set-up that is way behind Leinster, Munster and Ulster's centres.

That makes it difficult to compete for transfer targets, but days like last Sunday help no end.

Competing in Europe and retaining top talent help build Connacht's name and make it easier for Friend to recruit new players to the cause.

Connacht have never had a centrally contracted player. Their best home-grown talent, Robbie Henshaw, has one but he left for Leinster in 2016.

One imagines Nucifora's decision to green-light Damian de Allende's move to Munster is tied into his confidence in securing Aki's signature.

"Bundee is really aware that we are very, very keen to have him here. The bits of noise that I'm getting is that he is keen but that is a decision that rests with the IRFU," Friend said on Tuesday.

Nucifora uses a data model to assess the value of every player, totting up their contribution to the cause and making an offer based on that calculation.

With Aki, there is more to the equation.

Not only is he a durable, high-performing international, he is Connacht's marquee name, fan favourite and on-field talisman.

Keeping him in Galway will help Friend keep the western province on the right track.

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