Aki started in last week’s bonus point win over Cardiff Blues and will again play tomorrow in boost to Andy Friend’s side who look to make it three wins on the bounce in the PRO14.
Oisin Dowling has also been handed his first start for the province, having featured off the bench in the last two games.
Dowling is joined alongside Gavin Thornbury in the second row, with Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham completing the tight five. The back row is unchanged from the win over Cardiff Blues last time out, with Paul Boyle at number 8 alongside flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler.
There’s a new-look half-back pairing with Kieran Marmion alongside Conor Fitzgerald, while Tom Daly partners Aki in the centre. Finally Tiernan O’Halloran is handed his first start in nearly two months after recovering from injury, taking his place at full-back with Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan on the wings.
There’s an experienced look to the bench with centurions Denis Buckley, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty all included.
Head Coach Andy Friend says they are keen to give game-time to some players without disrupting the flow of a number of impressive team performances:
“This is a big day for Oisin getting his first start, and with Bundee released from Ireland duty and the likes of Tiernan and Kieran coming into the team also they bring a lot of experience with them. Overall we’ve named a very strong squad that is capable of keeping our winning run going.”
Friend also stressed the importance of treating each game like a cup final during this final run-in:
“I said at the start of this block of games that we realistically need 5 wins from 5 to have a chance of finishing top of the Conference, so this game is just as important as what’s gone before. Italy is always a tough place to get a win and we’ve seen from their last few performances that they’re getting closer to that first victory this season, so we have to be at our best to make sure that doesn’t come against us.”
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BENETTON RUGBY
Friday 26th February, Stadio Monigo, kickoff 5.30pm Irish time / 6.30pm local
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (188)
14. Peter Sullivan (9)
13. Tom Daly (39)
12. Bundee Aki (107)
11. Alex Wootton (14)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (29)
9. Kieran Marmion (177)
1. Paddy McAllister (15)
2. Shane Delahunt (91)
3. Finlay Bealham (151)
4. Oisin Dowling (2)
5. Gavin Thornbury (51)
6. Eoghan Masterson (103)
7. Jarrad Butler (67) (C)
8. Paul Boyle (51)
16. Jonny Murphy (12)
17. Denis Buckley (193)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (60)
19. Niall Murray (10)
20. Sean Masterson (9)
21. Caolin Blade (123)
22. Jack Carty (151)
23. John Porch (32)