Belfast Telegraph

Convincing Aki to stay at Connacht is crucial to Friend's master plan

Bundee Aki
Bundee Aki

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

For a good 30 minutes they stood in the cold, chanting relentlessly until their hero emerged. If you're in any doubt as to the importance of Bundee Aki to Connacht, you just had to listen to the children who refused to leave the Sportsground last Sunday until they'd caught a glimpse of the Ireland centre.

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Although Mils Muliaina was the bigger name, the capture of the Chiefs centre was a statement of intent from Pat Lam in 2014.

They beat Glasgow and Munster to his signature and within two seasons they won the Guinness PRO14. Since then, they've been in a rebuilding phase, but their Ireland starter has remained a consistent performer.

If they are to continue to build under their impressive coach Andy Friend, they must hang on to their franchise player.

Persuading Kieran Marmion to stay for three more seasons after he came in for interest from a number of clubs and dealt with the disappointment of being dropped for the World Cup was a significant piece of business for Friend.

Although he'll play a role in convincing Aki to remain, it is IRFU performance director David Nucifora who will do business with the New Zealand-born midfielder.

As one of the premier centres in Europe, it's no surprise that the big-spending French clubs are circling, and Aki will know his value.

He had no connection to Ireland before arriving five years ago, but he has delivered on every aspect of the contract he has signed and if he chooses to go elsewhere to earn a living, he should go with no ill will.

It is up to the union to pay him what he is worth, and if they lose him, they risk setting Connacht back a number of seasons.

Last Sunday was a reminder of the value of having Connacht as a strong proposition. Despite being down 16 injured players they went toe-to-toe with one of the most expensively-assembled squads in Europe in Montpellier.

Until the Sportsground is redeveloped, and there's no sign of an announcement of the large-scale sports capital grants they're waiting on, they will continue to train on a heavy pitch and operate in a set-up that is way behind Leinster, Munster and Ulster's centres.

That makes it difficult to compete for transfer targets, but days like last Sunday help no end. Competing in Europe and retaining top talent help build Connacht's name and make it easier for Friend to recruit new players to the cause.

One imagines Nucifora's decision to green-light Damian de Allende's move to Munster is tied into his confidence in securing Aki's signature.

"Bundee is aware that we are very, very keen to have him here. The bits of noise that I'm getting is that he is keen but that is a decision that rests with the IRFU," Friend said.

Nucifora uses a data model to assess the value of every player, totting up their contribution and making an offer based on that calculation. With Aki, there is more to the equation.

Not only is he a durable, high-performing international, he is Connacht's marquee name, fan favourite and on-field talisman. Keeping him in Galway will help Friend keep the western province on the right track.

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