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Aki Returns For Connacht’s Champions Cup Opener

Aki Returns For Connacht’s Champions Cup Opener

Returning centre Bundee Aki is pictured during Connacht's training session at the Sportsground on Monday ©INPHO/James Crombie

Bundee Aki will make his seasonal debut for Connacht in Friday’s Investec Champions Cup opener against Bordeaux-Bègles at the Sportsground (kick-off 8pm).

The World Rugby Player of the Year nominee has recovered from a hamstring injury to make his first appearance since Ireland’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to New Zealand.

Aki’s inclusion is one of five changes to the Connacht team that started last week’s last-gasp derby defeat to Leinster, with Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Joe Joyce and Andrew Smith also coming into the starting XV.

Dave Heffernan joins Buckley and Bealham in an experienced front row, while Darragh Murray is retained in the second row. The back row is unchanged with recent debutant Sean Jansen packing down alongside flankers Cian Prendergast and Shamus Hurley-Langton.

JJ Hanrahan and Caolin Blade, who captains the province as he nears 180 appearances for the westerners, continue their half-back partnership. The rest of the back-line is reshuffled.

Cathal Forde switches to the number 13 jersey, as he partners Aki in the centre, Byron Ralston shifts to the right wing, and Mack Hansen moves to full-back. Ireland Sevens international Smith completes the back-three.

Commenting ahead of the opening pool clash, head coach Pete Wilkins said: “Champions Cup nights at the Sportsground are special occasions and we expect Friday to be no different.

“Of course there was disappointment with last Saturday’s result against Leinster, but it shows we have the quality to perform against the best teams in Europe.

“We used Monday to review and bank the lessons from the game, and the whole squad is excited to get back out in front of another big crowd against another quality opponent.”

He added: “Bordeaux will arrive with a star-studded squad and, like many French sides, will have X-factor players who can light up a game if you give them the chance.

“For us it is a fantastic opportunity show we can impose our personalities and style of play against a quality team on the biggest European stage.

“The atmosphere at the Sportsground last week was unbelievable, and I’ve no doubt it will be something similar again tomorrow night. Our incredible supporters provide so much energy to the players and we look forward to rewarding them with a massive performance.”

CONNACHT (v Bordeaux-Bègles): Mack Hansen; Byron Ralston, Cathal Forde, Bundee Aki, Andrew Smith; JJ Hanrahan, Caolin Blade (capt); Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Darragh Murray, Joe Joyce, Cian Prendergast, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Sean Jansen.

Replacements: Tadgh McElroy, Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Conor Oliver, Michael McDonald, David Hawkshaw, John Porch.