Irish International Bundee Aki will make his 100th appearance for Connacht on Sunday after he was named to start in the Guinness PRO14 clash with Ulster at the Aviva Stadium (k/o 4.30pm).
 
Aki joined Connacht in 2014 and has gone on to play a central role in the province’s fortunes since then. He was named Guinness PRO12 Player of the Season in 2015/16, the same year he helped the team to their first ever title.
 
His form was rewarded with a first call-up to the Ireland squad in the 2017 Autumn Internationals. He has been an ever-present member of the squad since then, making 26 appearances and starting every game in the Grand Slam victory of 2018.
 
Elsewhere at least two players will make their Connacht Rugby debuts on Sunday with Alex Wootton and Academy graduate Peter Sullivan both named on the wings. They form a back three with John Porch who slots in at full-back.
 
Tom Farrell will partner Aki in the centre with Irish international Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty forming a formidable half-back partnership.
 
In the forwards there’s a return to action for prop Finlay Bealham after sustaining a serious injury against Edinburgh in February, and he makes up an experienced front-row with Denis Buckley and hooker Dave Heffernan.
 
Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury have been named in the second row, and the starting XV is completed by flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler, with Paul Boyle named at number 8.
 
Three more players could make their Connacht debuts off the bench, with props Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier, and back row Conor Oliver all included.
 
The remainder of the replacements is made up of Jonny Murphy, Niall Murray, Stephen Kerins, Conor Dean and Tom Daly.
 
Connacht Rugby Head Coach Andy Friend says there’s huge excitement about returning to action:
 
“It has been almost 6 months since our last game and 2 months since we commenced pre-season training, so we are delighted our return has finally arrived. I have been really impressed with how the squad as a group have reacted to the uncertainty of the last few months, and it’s now our opportunity to show that hard work against an opposing team.”
 
Commenting on his team selection, Friend added:
 
“We have selected a squad of 23 that we believe can win this fixture. We have a neat blend of experience & youth, with the potential of five new debutants for Connacht, along with Bundee making his 100th appearance. It’s therefore a special occasion in many ways, and we intend to put out a performance that warrants that.”
 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
16:30, Sunday 23rd August @ Aviva Stadium

15. John Porch
14. Peter Sullivan
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Alex Wootton
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler (c)
8. Paul Boyle

16. Jonny Murphy
17. Jordan Duggan
18. Jack Aungier
19. Niall Murray
20. Conor Oliver
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Conor Dean
23. Tom Daly

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.

Today it’s the turn of another Munster arrival, back rower Conor Oliver.

Welcome Conor how have your first few weeks been as a Connacht Rugby player?

It has been good, a new atmosphere and meeting new faces is always refreshing. Trying to remember the names wasn’t as hard because we started in small groups and I got to know the boys individually which is brilliant coming into a new environment. Usually, when you join a new team you are straight into a big squad and try to remember everyone’s name and it can be awkward when you don’t know someone’s name. I am doing well with names, I haven’t got any wrong so far. The training has been excellent, we have been pretty lucky with the weather which I was told can change very fast in The Sportsground. I am enjoying getting to know all the boys and coming into a new team means I am learning new things and get to challenge myself.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

It’s brilliant, I am enjoying working with new coaches and seeing the different personalities and the way they work. I already feel like I can chat with the coaches normally and I am getting on well with them. I was in contact with the S&C team well before we started back, I received programmes from them to prepare me for the way they do things before getting back, this gave me confidence coming into the team as I knew I was doing the same things as the other guys. Nothing was thrown at me, it was more of a gradual step by step introduction and it was the same with coaches from the rugby side of things. As the weeks have gone by I have started to learn the style of rugby Connacht play. The restrictions have probably helped the new players more because it gave us a chance to learn everything step by step.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through lock-down and everything?

I didn’t mind it too much, I was laid back when it came to that stuff. I was more excited about it than anything else, I wasn’t nervous. It was more stressful setting my life up again and moving to a new house in a new city. Luckily, Connacht were able to help me find a house. I had been in Munster for so long since my Academy days and have never experienced another club at a professional level. I was excited about getting into the swing of things and seeing what the Connacht set up is like.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

It’s a healthy competition which you need in any squad, you can’t get complacent. Once complacency sets in performances can start to dip. There is plenty of back rows in the squad and I would welcome any competition, I enjoy it as I am a very competitive person. It makes it even better when you do get selected and you know the hard work you put in at training starts to pay off. There are some excellent back rows and I cannot wait to see what happens during the season and there is no doubt we will be all pushing each other on to become better players

What would like to achieve with Connacht?

I am an extremely ambitious person which is one of the reasons I signed with Connacht, you can see the potential, it’s a young team. Every player wants to lift a trophy at the end of the season, that will always be my ambition when I am playing. I want to work towards that step by step and build nicely into the new season. It is great having these Interpros to gauge where we are at as a team and to see what needs to be fixed. I have a massive ambition to win silverware which is a goal for all players. I want to make an impact and difference in Connacht and bring things that I feel would be valuable to the team. When I play for a team I give it my all and I will give it 100 percent.

Have you experienced much of Connacht and Galway since you got here?

I love Galway, I have always enjoyed coming here on weekend trips. I have always thought it was a great city and the atmosphere around here is amazing. I feel lucky to be able to move here and experience it, especially living out in Barna and having the sea right beside me. I am originally from Skerries in Dublin and grew up beside the sea. That was one thing I missed when I was in Limerick was that connection to the sea. It is brilliant to be able to come back from training and go for a swim in the evening even though it is freezing.

What is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

I have a British bulldog, it’s just been me and him the past two years. He is probably one of the things I love the most, he gets fed more than me most of the time. I might try have him as a mascot at one of the Connacht games, but we may struggle to find a jersey that fits him. I am an avid gamer too, when I am not playing rugby I will be glued to my PlayStation.

Connacht Rugby are pleased to confirm the signings of Munster duo Sammy Arnold and Conor Oliver, and Leinster pair Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling.
 
The quartet will become Connacht Rugby players from July 1st with Arnold, Dowling and Aungier penning two-year deals.
 
Irish international Sammy Arnold has made 44 appearances for Munster since joining the province from Ulster in 2016, scoring 8 tries in the process. The 24-year-old centre has been named both Ulster Academy Player of the Year and Munster Young Player of the Year, and made his International debut against USA in the 2018 Autumn Internationals.
 
Back row Conor Oliver has featured 28 times for Munster since making his debut in February 2016 and was named Munster Academy Player of the Year the following season. The 24-year-old can play on either flanks or as a number 8, expanding the coaching team’s options heading into the new season.
 
Oliver and Arnold both featured for Ireland in the 2015 World Rugby U20 Championship, who were then coached by current Connacht Attack Coach Nigel Carolan.
 
Jack Aungier made his Leinster senior debut last November and has gone on to make 5 appearances for the side in the current Guinness PRO14 season. The prop has also impressed at underage level, featuring for the Ireland U20s and U18 Clubs squad.
 
Oisin Dowling arrives from the Leinster Rugby Academy having played 6 times for the senior squad in the past two seasons. The 6’5’’ lock has also been capped at Irish U20 level.
 
Commenting on today’s announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says all four players can make significant contributions to the squad ahead of the new season.
 
‘“In Sammy, Conor, Oisin and Jack we have secured the signings of four very talented and promising young Irish rugby players. They each have unique skillsets which will enhance our squad for next season and beyond, and will allow us to continue to grow as a program. We’re all looking forward to welcoming them to The Sportsground and integrating them into our playing squad.”

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