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
Article from Connacht Rugby
Graham Rowntree Confirmed As Next Munster Head Coach
Munster Rugby and the IRFU are pleased to confirm that Graham Rowntree will be promoted from Forwards Coach to the role of Head Coach from July 1, 2022.
Rowntree will commence the role of Head Coach at the start of the 2022/23 season after signing a two-year deal.
The former England prop made the move to Limerick in October 2019 on completion of his Rugby World Cup coaching duties with Georgia Rugby.
In his third season as Forwards Coach Graham and family have settled well into Limerick life, noting earlier this year, “I have made my thoughts about this club widely known throughout my time so far, and for me and my family it really has been an easy decision, a non-decision if truth be told.
“We’ve put down roots here and have no desire to move anywhere else.”
With an impressive coaching CV and vast experience, Rowntree previously held coaching roles with the British and Irish Lions, England Rugby, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers.
Working closely with the IRFU, the province will advance with next steps in securing the backroom team that will work with Graham from next season as Head Coach Johann van Graan, Senior Coach Stephen Larkham, and Defence Coach JP Ferreira depart the province at the end of June.
IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, commented, “I would like to thank the Munster Professional Game Committee for their work and diligence during this process.
“It is important that Munster have someone who understands the unique history and culture of the club and has the experience to maximise the talent in the squad.
“Graham was very impressive throughout this process and demonstrated he has the capabilities to spearhead the next chapter of Munster Rugby.”
On confirmation of the promotion, Graham Rowntree added, “I am hugely honoured to be taking over the role of Head Coach for a club of this calibre, one that means so much to me and my family.
“We have thoroughly enjoyed every moment here and I fortunately get to work with an incredible group of staff and players who share a common goal each day in striving for success for this club.
“I’ve talked about our fantastic supporters before and again at the weekend we stepped off the bus to a huge red welcome in Exeter. Who doesn’t want to be part of that, that’s special!
“I believe we have the established structures in place with the resources and facilities to match and that it will be a smooth transition for the coaching ticket we assemble in ensuring continued development and success for this club.
“Before then I have a role to complete this season and working closely with Johann, Steve, and JP is the immediate focus and priority for now.”
Commenting on the appointment, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan said, “Graham’s extensive coaching experience and knowledge for the game makes him the perfect candidate to lead this squad forward.
“With Graham stepping up at the start of the new season it will be a seamless and natural progression from the work that has been carried out to-date.
“For now, we will continue our focus on the remainder of this season with Graham supporting Johann and the coaching staff in achieving our goals.”
Munster Rugby Home Fixtures
Saturday, April 16
Champions Cup Round of 16: Munster v Exeter Chiefs, Thomond Park, 3pm; Buy tickets here
Friday, April 29
URC: Munster v Cardiff Rugby, Musgrave Park, 7.35pm; Buy tickets here
Images & Content from Munster Rugby
Sean O’Brien to retire from rugby
London Irish can confirm Seán O’Brien is set to retire from rugby at the end of the 2021/22 season.
The back-row forward will bring a storied 14-year career to a conclusion this summer after two-and-a-half years with the Exiles.
O’Brien spent eleven seasons with his home province of Leinster, winning four Pro12/ Pro14 league titles, four Heineken Cup/ Champions Cup honours and an Amlin Challenge Cup, whilst also earning the ERC European Player of the Year accolade in 2011.
He was capped 56 times for Ireland between 2009 and 2019 and represented the British and Irish Lions on two tours, firstly to Australia in 2013 and then to New Zealand in 2017.
O’Brien joined London Irish in December 2019 and has played a vital part across three successful seasons in west London, becoming a fan favourite amongst the Exile Nation.
On his decision to retire, O’Brien stated: “After much deliberation and consultation with my family and friends, I can confirm that I have decided to retire from playing professional rugby at the end of the season.
“I’ve had an incredible career and am thankful for every second of my time at Leinster, Ireland, London Irish and the British & Irish Lions.
“As a 20-year-old, I fulfilled my childhood dream by pulling on the Leinster jersey, and when I made my debut against Cardiff Blues in 2008, I never imagined what would then follow over the next 14 years.
“A special mention must go to Colin McEntee for his ‘big brother’ approach when I joined the academy.
“I feel lucky to have experienced so many wonderful highlights over the course of my career.
“At an international level, I feel privileged to have won 56 caps for Ireland.
“I gave everything I could possibly give, and I will always look back with great pride at every time I pulled on the Irish jersey to represent my country, my county, my friends, and family.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had but none of it would have been possible without the support of so many people.
“Firstly, I would like to thank my Mam and Dad for taking me to Ballon Rathoe Community Games and then Tullow RFC when I was 8 years old.
“They took me to every sport in my area which gave me the exposure to all types of sport.
“They were the perfect role models who taught me to not be afraid of hard work, which certainly helped me progress my career and I can’t thank them enough.
“I was lucky to play alongside some great players and under some brilliant managers and coaches during my time at Tullow, Leinster, Ireland, London Irish and the Lions and I would like to thank every one of them.
“I would also like to thank the backroom staff at each of those clubs, they all showed me fantastic support during my time with them.
“I would like to say a special thank you to some people who believed in me early on in my career, who are sadly no longer with us.
“Jim Kealy (Tullow RFC) and David Wilkie (Edenderry RFC) always said the right thing to me and gave me direction when needed.
“Away from rugby, I feel lucky to have had such a close group of friends that I have always been able to count and rely on throughout the course of my career.
“Thanks to all of you, especially James Foley and Daniel Davey.
“Finally, the most important thank you is reserved for my family.
“I can’t thank my Mum, Dad and brothers (Stephen and William) sisters (Caroline and Alex) enough for their unconditional support over the years.
“It has meant everything to me and to have 6 nephews watching means the world to me.
“There is still a lot of rugby to be played this season before the time comes to hang up my boots, and I am fully focused on giving my all in the London Irish jersey until then.
“I’m going to soak up every minute I get on the pitch and look forward to helping the team wherever I can.
“I am excited about the future and feel I still have a lot to offer the game, in whatever capacity that may be.
“I am currently taking my time to consider a number of options and will make an announcement with regards to the next stage of my career very soon.”
Ulster squad selected for Vodacom Bulls clash
The Ulster match-day squad to face Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Saturday afternoon has been named.
Andrew Warwick will make his 150th appearance for the province as he has been named to start at loosehead prop and will be joined in the front row by Brad Roberts and Marty Moore. Iain Henderson comes into skipper the side at second row, and will partner fellow Irish international, Kieran Treadwell. Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney come in to start at blindside and openside flanker, with Duane Vermeulen at the base of the scrum at Number Eight.
Mike Lowry is selected to start at full-back, with Ben Moxham and Ethan McIlroy named on the wings. Luke Marshall and James Hume will form the centre partnership while Ian Madigan and Nathan Doak make up the half-back pairing.
The Ulster coaching team has opted for a 6-2 split on the bench, with Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea and Marcus Rea selected as forward reinforcements. John Cooney and Stewart Moore provide the back line cover.
Ulster team to play Vodacom Bulls, United Rugby Championship Round 14, Saturday 2 April at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, 1pm kick-off (UK / IRE time), live on SuperSport, Premier Sports & URC TV:
(15-9) Mike Lowry, Ben Moxham, James Hume, Luke Marshall, Ethan McIlroy, Ian Madigan, Nathan Doak;
(1-8) Andrew Warwick, Brad Roberts, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea, John Cooney, Marcus Rea, Stewart Moore.