Hot property Connacht players Bundee Aki and Ultan Dillane have spurned offers elsewhere in Ireland and Europe to remain at the Galway Sportsground where they are "enjoying" their rugby.
Amid widespread speculation the two would move to pastures fresh, it is a real boost for the Pro 12 champions who have proved their pastures are greener right now. The contract extensions will keep Aucklander Aki in Galway until 2020, and Paris-born, Tralee-raised Dillane till 2019 – reaffirming the status of Connacht as a seriously ambitious province.
Connacht Rugby chief executive Willie Ruane says these latest contract extensions are hugely significant for what the province is trying to achieve, and also for the two players "who are happy in an environment in which they can fulfil their ambitions". Although the pair signed two weeks ago, the announcement was postponed due to the untimely death of Munster's Anthony Foley.
The Twenty-six-years-old Aki, who qualifies for Ireland next season, is believed to have turned down several offers – including cash-rich French giants Toulon, Toulouse, Bordeaux-Begles, and Stade Francais, and English club Bath, while it was strongly rumoured Munster would snatch up Dillane. However Ruane says such "speculation is one thing, statement of fact in some cases was bizarre".
“The negotiations were very straightforward. The guys came in, I met with them on a number of occasions, and they absolutely said ‘I want to be in Connacht Rugby’. I can’t say enough for the way in which the guys went about their business. If anything, I was somewhat bemused by the speculation, knowing what was going on myself.”
Player of year
The former Chiefs’ player and centre Aki, who was last season’s Pro 12 Player of the Year, said the decision was “fairly easy” despite offers elsewhere.
“Obviously there were a few people knocking on doors. but I felt like I was home here. I have been here for almost three years. I have enjoyed every year and every moment. My family is here and enjoying their time, so it was fairly easy decision for me to make.”
Aki, who followed Mils Muliaina to Connacht because of Pat Lam’s vision, said he was “happy to be part of something that is on-going”. “I see us moving forward and I want to be a part of it, “ he says.
Twenty-two-years-old Dillane, who has been fast-tracked from Connacht Academy to Ireland squad in two seasons, now “wants to keep going the way we are going”. “Obviously we did some great things last year and we have our goals for this season, “ the Connacht lock says.
The renewed signature of the two marquee players is seen as hugely significant for Connacht's status, alongside contract extensions for Ireland squad member Finlay Bealham, and the up-and-coming Seán O'Brien, Peter Robb, and Niyi Adeolokun.
“We are trying to continue to build something very significant here,” says Ruane. “We have achieved some great stuff over the last number of seasons, but we have ambitions to achieve more. This sends out the message that this is where the guys want to be and that is hugely significant.”
It is understood salaries have been increased to reflect their status and ensure their signatures, helped by last year’s increase from the IRFU and new commercial opportunities as a result of winning the Pro 12, but it was not a decision made solely on money.
“The IRFU increased the budget of the provinces last year . . . nothing massive, but it makes a difference when trying to retain a squad and the support was badly needed and gratefully accepted,” says Ruane. “The guys absolutely understand that playing good rugby is first and foremost what their roles are about. They are playing exceptional rugby and they are doing it in an environment in which they are happy and believe they can fulfil their ambitions. The idea it is solely about money, I believe I would be doing a disservice to the guys.”
“It says a lot about both of them,” says Connacht coach Pat Lam. “There are many examples of people who have gone to other places for money, and not enjoyed their rugby at all, but first and foremost it is the quality of the players and making a decision that is best for themselves, their families.
“There is no doubt people on-shore and off-shore were very keen on these two players because of their playing ability first and foremost. Then in our team everyone has role on the field, but also off the field as well – it is all about relationships, and these two have both got strong relationships with so many in the squad.
“But what it boils down to is ‘where I am happy showing up every day, where do I enjoy my rugby”, and that is the process these guys and everyone has to go through, and we are just really pleased and happy and proud the answers to those questions were here in Connacht..”
Yesterday's announcement comes at the start of a week in which Connacht will face Leinster for the first time since losing Robbie Henshaw to Dublin.
And there was more good news with Dominic Robertson McCoy (arm), Eoin Griffin (concussion) and Tiernan O’Halloran (knee) all having returned to training ahead of Saturday’s clash at the RDS.