IT HAS BEEN a long and frustrating winter for Niyi Adeolokun but as spring turns to summer and Connacht enter the business end of the season, the winger is straining at the leash to make his injury comeback in tonight’s Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Sidelined since sustaining an arm injury during the Pro14 win over Cheetahs back in December, Adeolokun was forced to have surgery on his bicep and spent most of the last four months within the four walls of Connacht’s Sportsground gym.
Adeolokun is back to full fitness for Connacht. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
It was a protracted, and at times painful, rehabilitation process given the nature of the injury meant the 28-year-old was extremely limited in what contact he could do, but the lay-off has allowed him to come back fitter and stronger than before.
A hugely athletic and powerful athlete, Adeolokun appears to be in excellent physical shape as he prepares to make his first start of 2019 in tonight’s European showdown against Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium [KO 7.45pm, BT Sport].
“Yeah, it was frustrating,” he tells The42. “But it’s so good to be back now. The sun is shining, there is a great buzz around the dressing room and I’m really looking forward to getting back out on the pitch again.”
The timing of the injury was particularly unfortunate for the one-time capped Ireland winger. He had built up a head of steam in the early stages of the season, scoring three tries in 10 appearances, before missing the crucial European pool games before Christmas and then the inter-pro fixtures over the festive period.
The recovery took longer than expected, but Adeolokun was cognisant of remaining diligent in his rehab work and praises the Connacht strength and conditioning staff for their role in getting him back to prime fitness after such a lengthy lay-off.
Named to start on the wing for Andy Friend’s side tonight, Adeolokun — who recently signed a contract extension with the province — is understandably champing at the bit to get going again after watching his team-mates make exciting progress in recent months.
“It’s annoying not being able to be out there, but great to see the lads going so well,” he continues. “There is a real confidence within the group now and guys like Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade, even though they didn’t get capped during the Six Nations, coming back and adding to the group again.
“It’s a very enjoyable place to be at the moment but we know the size of the task against Sale, who are a quality side with a lot of good players around the park. It’ll be tough but I can’t wait.”
Friend, as expected, has shuffled his pack for Connacht’s fourth Challenge Cup quarter-final in as many years, with the head coach keeping one eye firmly on key fixtures in the Pro14 to come.
The challenge this week has been to strike the right selection balance between resting players who have built up a heavy workload and picking a team who are capable of going to Manchester and winning a European quarter-final tie.
Connacht are boosted by the return of Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty to their starting XV and while there are opportunities for the likes of Adeolokun, Peter McCabe, Gavin Thornbury and Eoghan Masterson, there is an experienced core to the side too.
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Buckley speaking to media this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Denis Buckley made his 150th appearance for the province in the pool game against Sale at the Sportsground back in December, and will look to make a big impact off the bench against Steve Diamond’s side.
“It is great this year that we are fighting on both fronts,” he says. “We have a great opportunity this weekend to get a semi-final, and potentially a home semi-final, how good would that be for us?”
“On top of that we have got Zebre and Cardiff at home in the Pro14 and if we can win those two games we are in Europe next year and we have got a big play-off and anything can happen in play-offs. It’s exciting times for sure.”
This will be the seventh meeting between the sides in Europe, with Sale winning five of the previous six encounters, while Connacht have lost all three of their most recent Challenge Cup quarter-final games.
Buckley, however, believes this squad is well-equipped to overcome that hurdle and progress through to the last four.
“Even though the squad is relatively young, there are a lot of lads with high caps and a lot of lads who have played in these games before and certainly, you can draw on that experience,” the prop continues. “You have lads returning from the Six Nations who have been playing international rugby for the last few weeks that also bring that experience.
“Having played in these games before will certainly help us but at the same time, it’s 80 minutes of rugby and stuff you have or haven’t done in the past isn’t going to have an effect. It’s what you go out and do once you cross the line onto the pitch.”
In reaching the knockout stages again, Connacht have made exciting progress under Friend this season after the difficulty and disappointment of last term under Kieran Keane.
What has made all the difference this time around?
“I think the atmosphere off the pitch, just the buzz in the dressing room and within the playing group,” Buckley adds. “It’s a really close group at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, it has been quite a close-knit group for the last couple of years but just the atmosphere around the place has been a little bit more positive this year and I think the coaches have done a really good job in building a positive environment.
“And then that coupled with some lads who have broken through and they have made some quality signings and there’s a lot of competition in the squad. I think a combination of those few things has really pushed us up another level this season.”
The real test of that will be over the coming weeks, starting tonight in Salford.
15. Luke James
14. Denny Solomona
13. Sam James
12. Rohan Janse van Rensburg
11. Byron McGuigan
10. AJ MacGinty
9. Faf de Klerk
1. Ross Harrison
2. Rob Webber
3. Joe Jones
4. Bryn Evans
5. James Phillips
6. Jono Ross (captain)
7. Tom Curry
8. Josh Beaumont
16. Curtis Langdon
17. Tom Bristow
18. Alexandru Tarus
19. Josh Strauss
20. Ben Curry
21. Will Cliff
22. Cameron Redpath
23. Arron Reed.
15. Darragh Leader
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Kyle Godwin
12. Bundee Aki
11. Cian Kelleher
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Peter McCabe
2. Tom McCartney (captain)
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
4. James Cannon
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. James Connolly
8. Paul Boyle
16. Dave Heffernan
17. Denis Buckley
18. Finlay Bealham
19. Joe Maksymiw
20. Robin Copeland
21. Caolin Blade
22. Tom Daly
23. Stephen Fitzgerald.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].
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