Bundee Aki may seek to apologise to his team-mates first and foremost as it was his reckless action that effectively scuppered Connacht’s hopes in Stellenbosch on Saturday.
On the pitch for just nine minutes as a second-half replacement, he came from distance, at speed, with force, his shoulder contacting the head of Seabelo Senatla, as the Irish international attempted to clear-out the Stormers wing at a ruck.
Play continued and culminated in a try for Connacht centre Tom Farrell but referee Gianluca Gnecchi had already asked his television match official to review the clear-out as he blew his whistle. At the time, the Stormers led 19-8 but a converted try would have propelled Connacht to within touching distance on the scoreboard going into the final quarter.
The officials reviewed the incident, the upshot of which was to chalk off the try and issue a red card to Aki. The manner of the player’s protestations in the aftermath were misplaced. It proved the tipping point in the match as the Stormers gorged on a tiring Connacht side to score three further tries, the last in injury time ensuring a bonus point.
Connacht demonstrated huge mental and physical resilience up to that point to try and negate a physically bigger more powerful side, while at the same time trying to overcome their own performance imperfections that centred on brittle defence in the opening quarter, sloppy handling, and indiscipline throughout.
Individuals stood up and were counted, Josh Murphy outstanding, ably abetted by Dylan Tierney-Martin, Finlay Bealham, Paul Boyle, and Jarrad Butler in particular – the pack to a man contributed handsomely – and wings John Porch and Mack Hansen, both of whom caused their hosts problems defensively.
Connacht had 60 per cent possession and 59 per cent territory but couldn’t convert that into points and coupled with conceding 14 penalties – Stormers outhalf Manie Libbok kicked four from five attempts when the game was still a contest – it made for a frustrating afternoon for the visitors.
The disappointment is exacerbated by injuries to Caolin Blade (ankle) and Cian Prendergast (leg), both of whom are due to link up with the Emerging Ireland squad in Bloemfontein this week. Connacht take on the Bulls in Pretoria next weekend.
It was the Stormers opening match of the tournament and the defending URC champions will be reasonably pleased, albeit flattered by the final scoreline; they scored 19 points after their opponents were reduced to 14 players.
The home side led 13-8 at the interval, powerful number eight Evan Roos, notching a try while Libbok tagged on eight points with the boot. Connacht’s response came from a Conor Fitzgerald penalty and a well worked lineout maul that yielded a try for Dylan Tierney-Martin.
The visitors gifted the Stormers a further six points in giving away two soft penalties before the game-defining Aki incident. Tries from hooker Andre-Hugo Venter and flanker Hacjivah Dayimani enabled the Stormers to push out the lead to 31-8 before replacement prop Jack Aungier responded with a try for Connacht converted by David Hawkshaw.
The Stormers grabbed the four-try bonus point through Marcel Theunissen three minutes into injury time. The fixture list offers very little respite for Connacht, Friday’s trip to Pretoria followed by interprovincial derbies, both in the Sportsground, against Munster and Leinster, respectively.