Not the best start for Connacht in South Africa

It was always going to be a tough start to the season - an interpro in Belfast and two away fixtures in South Africa - one against the current URC champions.

But just when it looked like Connacht were finding their mo-jo in the second half, a red card for Bundee Aki put paid to all hopes of a victory against the Stormers at Stellenbosch Stadium.

The home side added another three tries in this second round fixture, ensuring Connacht sit pointless at the bottom of the URC table. It may only be the second match, but there is a long road ahead on which Bundee Aki is not expected to travel after his disciplinary hearing takes place remotely this week. That he continued to communicate with the referee is not expected to help his cause either.

However, Aki's passion and wholehearted belief in Connacht's cause has ensured he has been embraced by his peers in South Africa. And forwards coach Dewald Senekal conveyed the feelings of the Connacht team, saying: "We all know him and love him to bits for his useful energy. Bundee loves Connacht rugby. Every day he comes in and brings energy. He always wants the team to do well."

"Extremely apologetic”, Bundee Aki remains in South Africa “trying to help the boys to prepare for the next game.” Senegal says Aki “might have reacted wrongfully towards the ref in that moment, but he was just looking for a clear response”.

Unfortunately, he acknowledged the result of that red card was a "big 14-point swing".

"Rugby has clamped down on a lot," Senekal says." Unfortunately with the new rules and how that's being managed... three or four centimetres to the left, and it would maybe be a different outcome, but at this stage it's a red card."

And bad news is that Caolin Blade, who injured his ankle, has been ruled out, not just for Connacht, but also the Emerging Ireland tour of South Africa. On the plus side, Connacht’s Cathal Forde has travelled with the touring Irish party, while outhalf Jack Carty has joined Connacht this week.

However, Connacht's task against a Bulls outfit at high altitude will be physically demanding, and Senekal says the players need to learn more "situational intelligence" in the face of mounting penalties against them.

"At the moment everyone is very zealous and wants to get involved, so we have to make a few more intelligent decisions around rolling away at ruck time.

“There were three penalties like that - four on defensive scrums where we felt we had an opportunity to go at them and the ref took another view of it, and there were two more penalties - one for leg pulling and one for an early hit - and then a few personal penalties. So, if each of us has one penalty in a game, it ends up being 15 which is a lot, and it is very difficult to win away from home with that.

“It is important we learn quickly. We are only in round two, but we don’t want it to get away from us. Personally, individual and collectively, we need to take more ownership."

While Senekal believes Connacht is "one decision or one pass away from unlocking our real potential", playing in Loftus Versfeld Stadium is another huge challenge.

"This is a real test on the physicality front," he says. "If we get that ingredient right, we can go places. Hopefully we will be accountable and present in the physicality. You have to hurt when you come off the field; you have to sacrifice a lot physically and emotionally. Hopefully the hard work and pain to get a result in Loftus will be worth it."

Coaching director Andy Friend will certainly expect a massive response after that 38-15 defeat. Connacht had stormed back into the game, taking advantage of a yellow card to lock Marvin Orie. Josh Murphy led by example before hooker Dylan Martin-Tierney crashed over, ensuring Connacht went into the break just five points in arrears, 13-8. The Stormers bullied their way over the line and added two penalties for a 19-8 lead, but Connacht began to take a greater hold on the contest. However the turning point came when a try for Tom Farrell was denied and Aki was red-carded, there was no stopping the Stormers. They ran in three tries to Connacht's one from Jack Aungier, converted by replacement David Hawkshaw.

Stormers: C Blommetjies; A Davids (G Masimla 73 ), S Hartzenberg (S Mngomezulu 57 ), D du Plessis (G Masimla 73 ), S Senatla; M Libbok, P de Wet; A Vermaak (K Blose 64 ), A Venter (C Solomon 64 ), B Harris (N Fouche 52 ); E van Rhyn (c ) (A Smith 53 ), M Orie; J Pokomela, H Dayimani, E Roos (M Theunissen 70 ).

Connacht: O McNulty (B Aki 51 ); J Porch, B Ralston, T Farrell, M Hansen; C Fitzgerald (D Hawkshaw 61 ), C Blade (K Marmion 48 ); D Buckley (P Dooley 57 ), D Tierney-Martin (D Heffernan 57 ), F Bealham (J Aungier 57 ); J Murphy, N Murray (O Dowling 65 ); C Prendergast, J Butler (c ), P Boyle (S Hurley-Langton 65 ).

 

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