Connacht’s Grand Slam winners Mack Hansen and Bundee Aki have both returned to the province’s starting XV for Saturday’s EPCR Challenge Cup Round of 16 meeting against Benetton in the Stadio Comunale di Monigo in Treviso (kick-off 4pm Italian time/3pm Irish).
Hansen features for the first time since playing in every minute of Ireland’s Six Nations success, while Aki makes his first appearance for Connacht since the Christmas interpro against Ulster.
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Their respective returns are among the six changes made from the side that beat Edinburgh last week, with fellow internationals Dave Heffernan, Leva Fifita, Paul Boyle and Tiernan O’Halloran also coming into the starting team.
Heffernan is joined by props Peter Dooley and Jack Aungier, while Niall Murray partners Fifita in the second row. The back row sees flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver.
The half-back partnership of captain Caolin Blade, who scoffed another hat-trick last week, and David Hawkshaw is unchanged, while Tom Farrell partners Aki at outside centre. The inclusion of Hansen and O’Halloran means John Porch moves to the right wing.
Director of Rugby Andy Friend said: “There was lots to like about last weekend’s win, so it’s a brilliant situation we find ourselves in where we can bring six experienced internationals into the team for this game. That experience will be very important in knockout rugby, particularly away against a Benetton side who will also welcome back some important players.
“I’m very confident that we have the sufficient squad depth to challenge on both fronts in this final block of games. What’s important now is to build on our recent performances as we attempt to progress through to the next stage of this competition.”
The Benetton team is stacked with Italian internationals who featured in the Six Nations, including Edoardo Padovani, Nacho Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Seb Negri and Azzurri captain Michele Lamaro.
BENETTON: Rhyno Smith; Edoardo Padovani, Nacho Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Marcus Watson; Jacob Umaga, Dewaldt Duvenage (capt), Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Giacomo Nicotera, Tiziano Pasquali, Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Seb Negri Da Oleggio, Michele Lamaro, Henry Stowers. Replacements: Siua Maile, Thomas Augustin Gallo, Filippo Alongi, Riccardo Favretto, Manuel Zuliani, Alessandro Izekor, Alessandro Garbisi, Tomas Albornoz.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; David Hawkshaw, Caolin Blade (capt); Peter Dooley, David Heffernan, Jack Aungier, Leva Fifita, Niall Murray, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle. Replacements: Dylan Tierney Martin, Jordan Duggan, Sam Illo, Oisin Dowling, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Kieran Marmion, Cathal Forde, Shane Jennings.
Referee: Christophe Ridley (England)