Bundee Aki’s red card a step too far as Connacht go down to the Stormers

Defending champions power home after Ireland centre was dismissed for shoulder-to-head contact in clear-out

DHL Stormers 38 Connacht 15

Bundee Aki’s red card on 59 minutes paved the way for the Stormers to score three tries in the final quarter to open their URC title defence with a bonus-point victory.

The Irish international centre was on the pitch for just nine minutes when he was sent off for a shoulder-to-head contact on a clear-out on Stormers wing Seabelo Senatla. It was a stonewall red card and Aki’s animated reaction at the decision won’t help him at the disciplinary hearing.

The home side were leading 19-8 at the time but as play unfolded and before going back to review Aki’s actions, Connacht scored a try through Tom Farrell. That was chalked off. It was a pivotal moment and bitterly disappointing because despite numerous performance imperfections the visitors had fought doggedly to stay in the contest.


It was rough on players like John Porch, Dylan Tierney-Martin, Niall Murray, Jarrad Butler, Paul Boyle and the outstanding Josh Murphy, who had fought manfully to take the game to physically more powerful opponents.

Injuries to Caolin Blade and Cian Prendergast, both of whom are supposed to link up with the Emerging Ireland squad, and Aki’s suspension, will leave Connacht depleted as they take on the Bulls in the second leg of their South African stay.

The Stormers took the lead on five minutes, the initial threat benign, until Connacht centre Byron Ralston slipped in midfield to open a hole. Evan Roos accelerated through a gap, bounced Mack Hansen in a tackle and powered over in the corner. It was a fine individual effort, but Connacht’s defensive alignment was poor.

Manie Libbok kicked the conversion and then exchanged penalties with his Connacht counterpart Conor Fitzgerald to leave the home side leading 10-3 after 12 minutes. Butler saved the visitors with a superb penalty turnover eight metres from the Connacht line.

The Irish province continued to play with admirable enterprise but not matched by accuracy; a spiralling error count, many of the basic variety undermined that ambition. The Stormers weren’t immune to mistakes and with a modicum of composure could have added a couple more tries.

Instead, all they had to show on the scoreboard for their utter dominance in possession and territory was a second penalty from outhalf Libbok on 27 minutes. Oran McNulty’s break on one side of the pitch was followed by an even better one from John Porch, the latter halted illegally by a high tackle.

Fitzgerald kicked the penalty to the corner, hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin fought his way to a couple of metres short of the line, but Ralston and Blade, came up millimetres short on another penalty advantage. Connacht opted for a tap-and-go option but unfortunately Denis Buckley knocked on as he surged for the line.

Again, the visitors gave their hosts an easy out by conceding a penalty from the ensuing scrum. To their credit Connacht’s resilience mentally and physically was excellent, forcing their way back into the Stormers 22. The home side lost Marvin Orie to a yellow card and when the South African side conceded an eighth penalty, Connacht went to the corner again.

Prendergast secured possession and hooker Tierney-Martin profited from a well-constructed maul to touch down. Fitzgerald narrowly missed the conversion, but a 13-8 interval deficit was a decent response from the visitors considering the lapses in the first 20 minutes.

Libbok kicked a penalty on 44 minutes as Connacht’s discipline at the breakdown came into sharp focus once again and the visitors then lost Blade to a leg injury, the scrumhalf removed on a stretcher, which will cast doubt on his ability to hook up with the Emerging Ireland squad.

Connacht continued to gift their hosts penalties, Buckley for lifting a leg, replacement Aki for being in front of the kicker on a chase; Libbok punished them in the second instance.

Things got much worse for the visitors on 59 minutes with Aki’s straight red card for what referee Gianluca Gnecchi adjudged to be a dangerous clear-out on Senatla. The URC champions gorged on a tiring Connacht, scoring tries through Andre-Hugo Venter and Hacjivah Dayimani.

Connacht showed great resolve to muster one final assault and were rewarded when replacement prop Jack Aungier powered over, but in injury-time the Stormers grabbed the four-try bonus point with an effort from Marcel Theunissen.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 5 mins: Roos try, Libbok con, 7-0; 7: Fitzgerald pen, 7-3; 12: Libbok pen, 10-3; 27: Libbok pen, 13-3; 38: Tierney-Martin try, 13-8. Half-time: 13-8. 44: Libbok pen, 16-8; 54: Libbok pen, 19-8; 61: Venter try, Libbok con, 26-8; 67: Dayimani try, 31-8; 70: Aungier try, Hawkshaw con 31-15; 80 (+3): Theunissen try, Libbok con, 38-15.

DHL STORMERS: C Blommetjies; A Davids, S Hartzenberg, D du Plessis, S Senatla; M Libbok, P de Wet; A Vermaak, A-Hugo Venter, B Harris; E van Rhyn (capt), M Orie; J Pokomela, H Dayimani, E Roos.

Replacements: N Fouche for Harris (51 mins); A Smith for van Rhyn (53); S Mngomezulu for Hartzenberg (58); K Blose for Vermaak, C Solomon for Venter (both 63); M Theunissen for Roos, W Engelbrecht for Senatla (both 68); G Masimla for Du Plessis (73).

Yellow card: M Orie (36 mins).

CONNACHT: O McNulty: J Porch, B Ralston, T Farrell, M Hansen; C Fitzgerald, C Blade; D Buckley, D Tierney-Martin, F Bealham; J Murphy, N Murray; C Prendergast, J Butler (capt), P Boyle.

Replacements: K Marmion for Blade (48 mins); B Aki for McNulty (50); P Dooley for Buckley, J Aungier for Bealham, D Heffernan for Tierney-Martin (all 56); D Hawkshaw for Fitzgerald (58); O Dowling for Murray, S Hurley-Langton for Boyle (both 63); Fitzgerald for Porch (66); Porch for Fitzgerald (76).

Red card: B Aki (59 mins).

Referee: G Gnecchi (Italy)

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer