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Aki takes a stand by taking a knee before leading Connacht to victory over Ulster on his 100th cap

Connacht 26 Ulster 20


Jarrad Butler offloads to his Connacht team-mate Bundee Aki, left, while being tackled by Jordi Murphy of Ulster

Jarrad Butler offloads to his Connacht team-mate Bundee Aki, left, while being tackled by Jordi Murphy of Ulster

Jarrad Butler offloads to his Connacht team-mate Bundee Aki, left, while being tackled by Jordi Murphy of Ulster

Before the game Bundee Aki took the knee. Once the whistle went, he never took a backward step as he marked his 100th appearance for Connacht with a trademark influential role in a hard-fought win.

The Aucklander must count as one of the great signings in Irish rugby history and even in a game with nothing at stake in front of no supporters he turned up the noise on Ulster and his team-mates.

The soundtrack of this game was the constant chatter from Connacht’s talismanic centre whose communication levels were key in keeping the western province aligned as they played their first match in almost six months.

He started with a thumping tackle and produced one of the moments of the match when he powered over for an outstanding try midway through the second-half.

When his coach Andy Friend predicted he’d run over a few lads during the week, he could hardly have envisaged it would be so effective.

Before kick-off, Aki was joined by captain Jarrad Butler, full-back John Porch and Ireland international Ultan Dillane in kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as the other players stood in a circle as part of a ‘unity moment’.

Players were encouraged to demonstrate in whatever way they saw fit, but of the 60 players across two games those four were the only ones to follow footballers across Europe and countless American sportspeople in dropping on to a knee.

On the pitch, Ulster looked to have lost some edge having had their qualification for the PRO14 semi-finals confirmed by Edinburgh’s win over Glasgow last night.

This felt a little bit more like a pre-season game than the previous evening’s clash of Leinster and Munster, but Aki was having none of it and he kicked off his 100th cap with a thundering tackle but it was John Cooney who opened the scoring from the tee after Marcell Coetzee won a poach penalty.

The lead didn’t last long. Jack McGrath conceded a scrum penalty, which gave Jack Carty the chance to move his team into position.

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Alex Wootton, on loan from Munster, made the initial burst to get his side on the front foot and the men in green settled into their pattern, patiently waiting for an opportunity until Carty drew Craig Gilroy out of the line and popped the ball off brilliantly to John Porch who scored.

Carty made it 7-3, but Cooney narrowed as Connacht again fell foul of the new breakdown interpretations as Ultan Dillane didn’t roll away.

Connacht didn’t let it bother them, putting together a stunning move to score their second try.

Again, Wootton was involved as he moved the ball wide to Porch who drew the defenders towards the left touch-line, before chipping in-field where Kieran Marmion was ready to pounce and score.

Carty converted and Cooney missed a third penalty attempt and Ulster spurned another golden opportunity to score before half-time when they mauled the ball over the line but hooker Adam McBurney – a late replacement for Rob Herring – somehow contrived to get himself held up.

Still, they had the attacking scrum and won a penalty from that, so Billy Burns kicked to touch again but McBurney’s throw sailed over his team-mates and Wootton was able to clear.

So, Connacht got to half-time with their lead intact but they suffered an injury blow after the restart when Gavin Thornbury suffered an injury to his head or neck.

Ulster had made three changes at the break and after a lengthy stoppage they set about getting back into the game.

With Alby Mathewson on for his debut and upping the tempo, Stuart McCloskey went close and when Connacht killed the ball Ulster went to the corner.

Once again, Connacht repelled their maul by holding McBurney up over the line but the men in white finally broke their resistance by staying patient off the scrum before working the ball to Jacob Stockdale who sauntered in from Billy Burns’ pass.

Burns converted before being replaced by Ian Madigan and Aki welcomed his fellow international back by running over him, James Hume and Mathewson to mark his Connacht century with an impressive try.

It was more than Connacht deserved given Tom Farrell had gone close in the previous play and when Carty converted it was 21-13 as the game edged towards the final quarter.

Connacht’s replacement hooker Jonny Murphy saw yellow who paid the price for a series of team infringements and Ulster looked to his back in his absence.

Ulster went for the scrum and backed it up with a ferocious drive that allowed Nick Timoney to touch down and when Madigan converted it was a one point game.

Connacht responded and good work from Peter Sullivan almost released Marmion, but he couldn’t escape the covering defender and the game remained in the balance.

Debutant Jack Aungier made sure of the win as Connacht finished strong to claim a win that will rankle with Ulster coach Dan McFarland.

CONNACHT – J Porch; P Sullivan, T Farrell (T Daly 74), B Aki, A Wootton; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley (J Duggan 73), D Heffernan (J Murphy 57), F Bealham (J Aungier 57); U Dillane, G Thornbury (N Murray 43); E Masterson (C Oliver 70), J Butler (capt), P Boyle (D Heffernan 61-71).

ULSTER – J Stockdale; C Gilroy, J Hume (M Lowry 73), S McCloskey, L Ludik; B Burns (capt) (I Madigan 52), J Cooney (A Mathewson h-t); J McGrath (E O’Sullivan h-t), A McBurney (J Andrew 57), M Moore (T O’Toole 43); A O’Connor (S Carter 32), K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee (M Rea 47).

Ref: F Murphy (IRFU)

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