Pat Lam has admitted his surprise that Connacht’s star centre Bundee Aki was not among the four players nominated for the IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year.
The New Zealand-born Samoan player has been outstanding during the Westerners’ campaign, yet his fellow professionals have voted for a quartet of Ireland internationals ahead of him.
One of Aki’s Connacht colleague Robbie Henshaw, Munster captain CJ Stander, Leinster prop Jack McGrath and Ulster’s Ireland skipper Rory Best will be crowned the winner at an awards ceremony in Dublin tonight.
Ireland’s professionals have twice voted overseas signings as their player of the year, with Leinster’s Isa Nacewa claiming the gong in 2011 and Ulster’s Nick Williams winning in 2013.
“I was,” Lam said when asked if he was surprised by Aki’s omission. “Initially I thought it was an Irish thing. Then I remembered seeing Isa up there, and Nick Williams – two good players, so yeah. . .
“But consistently throughout the season, there’s no doubt. . . I talk to all the other coaches and if you asked them if they could take one player from our team, who would it be, I’ve no doubt it’d be Bundee Aki, and if they recognise it, then. . .
“Again, Bundee would be the first to say it’s all bonus stuff, the first is the team.
“His performances have been world class. There’s no doubt that he brings energy, excitement to those around him. He loves being around the guys and it’s more that he leads through his example and his energy is the big one.”
Aki is back in the Connacht squad for Saturday’s final regular season game against Glasgow after recovering from his knee injury, and Lam is also boosted by the return of Matt Healy and Finlay Bealham.
However, props Nathan White (concussion) and Denis Buckley (foot) remain out of action, as does Danie Poolman (foot), while Craig Ronaldson is in a race to be fit for the game.
Already guaranteed a place in the top four, a win for Connacht over the Pro12 champions on Saturday would secure them a home semi-final, while a bonus point victory would secure top spot.