Bundee Aki is back in the Connacht team for their European Challenge Cup quarter-final clash with Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday (kick-off 7.45pm). This will be Aki’s first appearance for the province since the dramatic pool win away to Bordeaux-Bègles in January.
The selected Connacht side shows 13 personnel changes and two positional switches with Darragh Leader and Kyle Godwin the only players retained, albeit in different positions. Experienced hooker Tom McCartney will captain Andy Friend’s men on the occasion of his 100th Connacht appearance.
Leader switches to full-back to cover the absence of Tiernan O’Halloran, with Niyi Adeolokun coming in on the right wing to make his first start since suffering an arm injury against the Toyota Cheetahs in November. Cian Kelleher completes the back-three, Aki is joined by the versatile Kyle Godwin in midfield, and Ireland duo Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion fill the half-back berths.
It is all-change up front from last Friday’s 29-14 GUINNESS PRO14 win at home to Benetton Rugby, as McCartney leads a tight five which features props Peter McCabe and Dominic Robertson-McCoy and locks James Cannon and Gavin Thornbury, who continues his return from a shoulder injury.
James Connolly, who lined out for Connacht Eagles in the Cara Cup, and Eoghan Masterson get the nod at openside and blindside flanker respectively, with the 22-year-old Paul Boyle packing down at number 8 for his 11th start of the current campaign.
Looking forward to renewing rivalries with Pool 3 winners Sale, head coach Friend said: “We said at the start of the season that we wanted to be in the business end of both the Challenge Cup and the PRO14. We face a tough challenge away to Sale in the quarter-final on Friday night, but this is knockout rugby and we have picked a side to go and win the game.
“I’m happy with how the squad has been performing over the past few weeks. We are seeing strong competition for places. There is a real intensity to our training, and we are seeing that in our performances on the pitch. We have played Sale twice this season, with both teams winning a game apiece, so I expect Friday night to be another tight affair.”
CONNACHT (v Sale Sharks): Darragh Leader; Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, Cian Kelleher; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney (capt), Dominic Robertson-McCoy, James Cannon, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, James Connolly, Paul Boyle.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, Robin Copeland, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Stephen Fitzgerald.