Connacht boosted by return of Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham for Pau clash

Pete Wilkins’s side looking to bounce back in European competition after two URC losses

Connacht’s European hopes have been given a real boost with the availability of Ireland internationals Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham ahead of their Challenge Cup Round of 16 meeting with Pau in France on Sunday (5.30 Irish time).

On the back of losses against the Lions and Benetton in the URC, Connacht are now pinning their hopes of a European win to get them back on track and advance to the quarter-finals.

Aki and Bealham’s return could not come at a better time and head coach Pete Wilkins says they will play a key part in the week’s preparation, on and off the field.

“Both are massive personalities in terms of the energy they give to the group and how popular they are.,” said Wilkins. “They bring rugby intellect and experience of big games and it’s great for us to have them on board. They will play a key part, not just on the weekend, but on our whole preparation leading up to it.”

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In addition scrumhalf Caolin Blade has recovered from an Achilles issue and hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin is available having recovered from a neck issue, while both John Porch (knee) and Seán O’Brien (thigh) have passed fitness tests. Outhalf JJ Hanrahan and backrow Conor Oliver have completed their return to play protocols since the Lions game and are also available.

Ruled out for this week are Sean Jansen (groin), Byron Ralston (ankle), Michael McDonald (foot) and Diarmuid Kilgallen (shoulder). There are no new updates on Oisín Dowling, Mack Hansen and Santiago Cordero.

The return of key players is coming at the right time of the season given Connacht’s hopes to keep fighting on two fronts. And having dropped out of the Champions Cup reckoning, Connacht now want to make a statement in France of their credentials in the second-tier competition.

“It is good timing and a huge opportunity for us,” said Wilkins. “Our lessons of what we did well and what we can improve on from our game in Italy last weekend will be a really important part in setting us up for success this weekend.

“I do think the execution of some of our players let us down at times, and also, when we got into the attacking half of field and had a chance to build, we gave up possession or made a mistake too quickly.”

A “sequence of shooting ourselves in the foot” continued to give Benetton the foothold, he added.

“There is an enormous learning in that – firstly, how good our skills need to be when under pressure for us to execute those kicks, catches, or carries. And secondly when we have been in a period when we have not spent any time in the opposition half, and when we get there, we don’t need to risk anything, we don’t need to play loosely and cough up possession, but bed down and build down phases.

“We will be better for the experience, as painful as it is – as long as we learn those lessons.”

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