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 the newest member of the prop club, Jack Aungier.
 

Jack welcome, how have your first few weeks been as a Connacht Rugby player?

I have settled in very well, the players and staff have made me feel very welcome here which has made the transition a lot easier. I would know a few of the lads from the Irish U20’s team which helped. Training has been tough but it is brilliant to get back into rugby and train as a team. A lot of it has been conditioning and gym sessions before this week, it is brilliant to be able to get back into the rugby part of things. I am looking forward to the games in August.

Normally you meet all coaches and players when you first start but for you, training started in smaller groups, was that strange?

We were in groups of seven at the start, I only ended up meeting everyone last week. It was our first time all together in one big group. It was strange having to clean the whole place down after being in the gym and maintaining a distance from the players and coaches, it took a bit of getting used to.

Do you feel being in the smaller groups allowed you to get to know people better?

The guys I am living with were in my initial group, I would have known them previously from the age-grade teams. I got to know Eoghan Masterson and Caolin Blade quite well. Eventually, I got to meet everyone as the weeks went on, everyone is easy to get on with.

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

The S&C team put us through our paces for the first few weeks. The programme is slightly different from what I was used to in Leinster, it did take a bit of getting used to. I feel fit after the first month, coming into the rugby side of things, I am still coming around to all the plays and calls with Nigel, Pete, Jimmy, and Andy. I have gotten to know them well over the last few weeks and I am learning new things every week.

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

My last game with Leinster was 5 months ago and when I left the building I didn’t know it was going to my last time. That is the way professional rugby goes and you must move on. I was looking forward to getting started with Connacht. The last month has been brilliant for me.

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

I think props tend to mingle with each other straight away, they are all great lads and there is great competition there. I know Andy mentioned that there isn’t much of a pecking order, that tight head position is up for grabs. I am certainly looking forward to competing with those lads over the next two years.

What would like to achieve with Connacht?

My aim is to get on the team every week, it’s a competitive position. My goal is to play as much as I can whether that is starting or from the bench. I want to build up my experience and my overall goal is to win a league with Connacht, that’s why we play the game. From talking to the coaches there is a competitive squad here that can win the PRO14 and compete in Europe.

Final question, have you experienced much of Connacht and Galway since you got here?

I have been out and around a good bit, I want to make sure I get out and explore on my days off. I want to experience that culture, it is different to the East of Ireland. It has been brilliant so far.

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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