Connacht prepare for their European Champions Cup opener boosted by the expected return of international Bundee Aki.
The Ireland centre, who has been unavailable due to World Cup duties and then a hamstring injury, is both fit and ready for action as Connacht entertain Bordeaux-Begles at the Sportsground on Friday evening.
“He’s good to go,” says head coach Pete Wilkins. “Great news for us, great news for him. He’s in a good space mentally and we are really excited to have him back.”
Although Aki’s hamstring was not an acute injury that caused any issues, Wilkins says it was something that lingered.
“It was managed really well during that World Cup period, and we wanted to use this window to get it right.”
Now, he says, the World Player of the Year nominee is brimming with confidence, despite Ireland’s exit from the World Cup.
“I’m delighted on a personal level at the form he has shown, but absolutely devastated in terms of the team and their progression in the World Cup.
“He’s dealt with that disappointment, but I don’t think it will ever leave him or them, but he has channelled it into doing his rehab really well, and getting himself good to go. He’s in a good space mentally, and we are excited to have him back.”
Wilkins, having studied Friday’s French opponents who played Oyonnax last weekend, now has a “pretty good picture to have a plan going in”.
He has been helped also by the injured Santiago Cordero. The Argentinian international and former Bordeaux player has been “heavily involved” in Connacht’s preparation.
“We’ve had formal sit-downs with him [Cordero] in terms of attack, defence and the backs. He’s been forthcoming and incredibly valuable. I think he is as excited as anyone that we are drawn again them, and I am just devastated for him that he cannot be involved this time round.
“We’ve picked his brains. It doesn’t win or lose a game, but it certainly gives us a few angles in terms of our preparation.”
The French opponents, who currently lie mid-table in the Top 14, boast some star internationals, which Wilkins says is exciting for the club and Connacht supporters.
“We can’t wait to come up against them. We can’t be so naive to think we can’t do our due diligence on their strengths, but at the same time we want to make sure the overall game plan is focused on what we can control.
“Let’s address that, be really aware of what makes them effective, and make a plan for it, and if we are delivering that in terms of our own game plan, we can cause them problems.”
European fare comes hot on the heels of Connacht’s last-minute URC loss to Leinster at the Sportsground.
“There are lessons to be learned in how you manage the last two minutes of the game, how you respond in the last defensive set. Did we show some of the qualities we demonstrated in the same 78 minutes leading up to that last scrum?
“But you can’t let those last minutes define what we didn’t do right in the rest of the game. We operated on 40 per cent territory, which was also the lowest of our season so far, and certainly against a very good Leinster side. While the end of the game is crucial to analyse, we cannot be blinded either to what might have put us in a stronger position. It is important we have that balance in how we look at it.”
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