Friend backs Aki to find form for run-in
It has been a first season of real promise for Connacht under Andy Friend. Three games remain to turn that promise into real progress, and they'll need Bundee Aki to be at his best to complete the job.
Friday night's defeat to Sale Sharks has narrowed the window for success for the western province, and their Ireland star cut a curiously subdued figure at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Normally, it is the Auckland-born centre who sets the tone for his side, carrying the game to the opposition with his energetic defensive efforts and big carries.
But in Salford Aki was out-played by his opposite number Rohan Janse van Rensburg, who made big gains on almost every carry.
In contrast, the Connacht talisman made one tackle and missed another, while his eight carries yielded just three metres. There was a breakdown turnover, but the visitors needed more.
Perhaps he is suffering a hangover from a difficult campaign with Ireland, where he was heavily involved in a struggling team.
Whatever, his coach is backing him to find the fixes quickly as the Westerners chase a play-off spot in the Guinness PRO14 and a spot in next season's Champions Cup.
"No, I think we all suffered from the style we played (against Sale)," Friend said when asked if he felt there was a hangover from Aki's international work-load.
"Bundee is a confrontational player, but if we're not giving him the ball to be confrontational… I thought we were way too flat in attack in that first half.
"We saw there in the end, Bundee didn't stop trying - he got that great turnover in the second half when we were starting to build up some momentum.
"It was probably the style that we started with and the way we didn't ask the question, so I'm fine with Bundee."
The Challenge Cup is gone, so all of Connacht's eggs are in the PRO14 basket, with the decisive three remaining regular season games defining the province's campaign.
Zebre are first up this Saturday in Parma, before Cardiff Blues arrive in Galway for what looks like the decisive game in Connacht's season given the Welsh side are only behind Friend's men by a points difference margin of six.
Connacht's hope is to get to the final game against Munster with their fate in their own hands.
Injuries won't help. On Friday Jack Carty came off early holding his upper arm, but Finlay Bealham got positive news on his gruesome hand injury as scans showed no break or ligament damage.
Friend is an upbeat character who has imbued the team with a sense of purpose and positivity since Kieran Keane departed.
Friday night didn't go to plan, but there is a lot to play for.
"It's disappointing and obviously we wanted to win this game and carry on to the semi-finals," captain Tom McCartney said of Friday's 20-10 defeat.
"It would have been an awesome result for us, but there is always another game next week.
"For us Zebre is a massive game. We are travelling pretty well in the PRO14 and if we can go over there and get the win then it still keeps us in a really good spot heading into the one after that against Cardiff.
"You play enough seasons of rugby and there are going to be tough losses along the way.
"It's not about losing confidence. It's about getting back on the training paddock and bouncing back, and putting a performance against Zebre on the paddock that we all can be proud of."