Andy Friend bullish as Bulls look to exploit Bundee Aki absence

Bundee Aki’s absence not only cost his side a chance of victory last weekend but the return of three Springboks for the Bulls in formidable Loftus tomorrow night shows how much he will be missed this week too.

ake White’s side, URC finalists last season, will be boosted by the return of in-form Springboks, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Sbu Nkosi.

The westerners are confident of being a thorn in the Big Bulls side but this is not the same Bulls who were swept away in Galway 34-7 last term; they know what they’re about now.

Even last Saturday, White pitched out a largely inexperienced side who were able to recover from blowing a 15-0 to Edinburgh before emerging with the points in the final gasps.

Connacht coach Andy Friend, who makes seven changes to his side, is upbeat despite his side’s “disappointing” winless start to the campaign.

“Whilst our first two performances have been disappointing and below our own expectations, the mood within the team remains positive,” he says.

“Everyone has been working really hard to iron out some of the issues that have hindered us in the opening rounds, and we’re excited about the opportunity that the Bulls presents.

“All five players who joined us post the Stormers match have proven to be great additions for us, especially our Team Captain Jack Carty.

“It’s been fantastic to have him back training with us for the first time this season, and he’s on target for selection in the not too distant future.”

In his ongoing absence, David Hawkshaw is handed his first Connacht start at out-half.

The Leinster recruit, who had a fitful bench cameo last weekend, forms a new-look half-back pairing with Kieran Marmion, while the only other change in the backs is the return of Tom Daly to inside centre.

He partners Tom Farrell, with an unchanged back three of wingers Mack Hansen and John Porch and full-back Oran McNulty.

In the pack there’s a return for Dave Heffernan who forms a very experienced front row with Denis Buckley and Finlay Bealham.

There’s a new second row pairing of Leva Fifita and Oisín Dowling, meaning Josh Murphy moves to blindside flanker. The rest of the back row consists of openside flanker Conor Oliver and number eight Jarrad Butler.

The management have opted for a 6:2 split on the bench and includes hooker Grant Stewart and Academy graduate Ciarán Booth, who will both make their debuts for the province if called upon.

As for the Bulls, Arendse and Moodie, both of whom quickly became fan favorites at Loftus with their electric pace and insane steps, will be high in confidence after both made their Springbok debuts in the past few weeks, scoring three tries collectively.

Cornal Hendricks will partner David Kriel in midfield, while Johan Goosen gets his first start in the No 10 jersey since returning from a long-term injury.

The loose trio gets a little shuffle as Marco van Staden starts at No 7 with Ruan Vermaak dropping out for this game and joining the Vodacom Bulls XV that face the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

Francois Klopper earns a well-deserved start at tighthead, as Mornay Smith drops to the bench, with Johan Grobbelaar and Gerhard Steenekamp at hooker and loosehead, respectively.

Bulls have lost just one of their last eight United Rugby Championship matches, last season’s final to the HL Stormers in Cape Town..

And they have won their last eight fixtures at Loftus Versfeld in the URC since losing there 22-29 to the Sharks on 12 February.

Since that 34-7 Octoer reverse in Galway Bulls are 3-3 against Irish sides.

Connacht’s only win in their last four United Rugby Championship matches was 22-20 at home to Zebre on 1 May and they haven’t won on the road since beating Emirates Lions in Johannesburg in April.

They have lost their last two matches against South African opponents whilst their record in South Africa is, won four, lost three.

Bulls – 15 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Cornal Hendricks, 12 David Kriel, 11 Sbu Nkosi, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Zak ​​Burger, 8 Elrigh Louw, 7 Marco van Staden, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp , 3 Francois Klopper, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Subs: 16 Jan-Hendrik Wessels, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Mornay Smith, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 Reinhardt Ludwig, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Lionel Mapoe.

Connacht (caps in brackets) 15. Oran McNulty (10); 14. John Porch (61), 13. Tom Farrell (81), 12. Tom Daly (62), 11. Mack Hansen (15); 10. David Hawkshaw (2), 9. Kieran Marmion (211); 1. Denis Buckley (210), 2. Dave Heffernan (167), 3. Finlay Bealham (175), 4. Leva Fifita (16), 5. Oisín Dowling (26), 6. Josh Murphy (2), 7. Conor Oliver (42), 8. Jarrad Butler (96) (C).

Replacements – 16. Grant Stewart *, 17. Peter Dooley (2), 18. Jack Aungier (33), 19. Gavin Thornbury (64), 20. Shamus Hurley-Langton (2), 21. Colm Reilly (9), 22. Byron Ralston (2), 23. Ciarán Booth *.

*Denotes uncapped

Bulls v Connacht, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, 6.30pm., TG4, Premier Sports

Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR, 26th competition game)

Assistant: Cwengile Jadezweni, Griffin Colby (both SARU)

TMO: Matteo Liperini (FIR)

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