Cian Tracey: ‘Why Bundee Aki‘s new deal is crucial to Connacht on a number of levels‘

It was shortly after Ireland had won the Grand Slam last year when Bundee Aki pointed to the poor condition of Connacht‘s training pitch.

Aki‘s tongue was firmly in his cheek when he made the remarks about the “dirty” “puddle pitch”, but there was no doubt that he was trying to make a point to the powers that be.

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He had just spent the previous couple of months training in the plush surrounds of Carton House before he was brought crashing back down to earth upon his return to Connacht.

Those comments came to mind in recent weeks as Aki negotiated a new contract with the IRFU.

Given the calibre of clubs who were interested in luring the Ireland centre away, it‘s not unreasonable to assume that Aki would have looked at every option that was on the table.

There has been a theory floated that if the 29-year-old had decided to up sticks and move abroad, then he would somehow have been doing the dirt on Ireland after they capped him and sent him to the World Cup.

While that all sounds well and good in theory, it‘s not how many professional players think.

Thankfully, from Connacht and Ireland‘s point of view, Aki chose to replicate the loyalty that was shown to him when he arrived in Galway in 2014.

Speaking on ‘Off The Ball‘ earlier this week, former Ireland captain Keith Wood insisted that had Aki moved abroad when his contract ran out at the end of the season, it would have left a “sour taste”.

Compare that to All Blacks flanker Ardie Savea‘s comments last week, when he wrote on “I remember getting the loyalty speech at college camps about professional footy (laughing emoji). I‘ve realised now – it‘s a business.”

Aki is in the prime of his career, so he was always going to try and get every last cent out of what is an important contract.

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Credit, then, to the IRFU, who knew they were under pressure to stump up the cash – not only to keep hold of a valuable asset for the national team, but also the heartbeat of Connacht. Aki has become an icon in the west of Ireland.

Last week‘s news that he has signed a three-year contract extension is therefore a crucial bit of business on so many levels.

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Connacht now have a player on a centrally-funded contract for the first time, which in turn frees up a large amount of their player budget for next season.

Couple that with the excitement surrounding the planned redevelopment of the Sportsground as well as the feel-good atmosphere that Andy Friend has brought to the club, and suddenly things are looking up for Connacht again.

Aki has become such a household name that overseas players may well be attracted to Galway when they see a player of his class willing to commit his future to the Westerners.

As Friend has found out since his side‘s return to the Heineken Champions Cup, squad depth is so important if you want to compete on both fronts.

Aki missed the defeat in Toulouse a fortnight ago and while it is easy to point to his absence as one of the main reasons for losing, he has become such an important figure for Connacht that he is the kind of player you want in the trenches when the chips are down.

Now that he has signed on the dotted line, he can get back to doing what he does best on the pitch, starting on Sunday against Gloucester.

It has been a good few weeks for Connacht in terms of tying down Aki and Kieran Marmion, but results on the pitch, particularly in Europe, are vital in order to take that next step.

A second consecutive defeat on the road would leave Connacht needing a minor miracle to emerge from what is a tricky pool.

Although that wouldn‘t necessarily be the end of the world, it would be seen as a setback for a club with big ambitions.

For all of that, the Westerners are realistic about the challenges they have faced, particularly in their lengthy injury list, which is clearing up slowly but surely.

Aki might have ruffled a few feathers when he spoke out about the state of the training pitch last year, yet ultimately, that is exactly what Connacht need.

They have played second fiddle for too long over the years, but having players and coaches demanding high standards from the top down can only bode well in their quest for silverware over the coming seasons.

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