Aki exudes positivity in advance of key Paris showdown

Abrasive centre says – despite Sexton’s absence – Ireland have the players to take the game to the French

Bundee Aki scores a try for Ireland in the opening victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Bundee Aki rocks up, illuminating the screen with a sunny February disposition.

Paris in the spring holds neither love nor fear. The injury to his outhalf and captain Johnny Sexton is little reason to cloud today's bright sky. Aki is talking about leaning into the French, not hesitating or standing back in Stade de France.

There is also a little bit of playful bantz going on, which is either a bet with another player, or, evidence that Aki’s mind is free and easy to josh and knock about a little.

A try in the first game against Wales after a high take above his head and there's an assurance that Ireland's inside centre will happily meet French hostility with no less than equal horsepower. A Shaun Edwards defensive system that pushes hard on the fringes to funnel Irish players into huge central French forwards is likely to test that.


So, there’s a bring-it-on vibe going on in the Connacht back’s head. Not even a reminder of Ireland’s last trip to Paris, which may fleetingly weigh heavily, will drag him down.

"Oh yeah, obviously it's a game we're disappointed with as a team and as a group," he says about the October 2020 match in St Denis, which France won 35-27. All but two of the French points were scored by outhalf, Romaine Ntamack and scrumhalf, Antoine Dupont, who both played against Italy in the opening round of matches.

For Ireland, whose tries came from Cian Healy, Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale, it was a disappointing finale having come into the game knowing a win by seven points or more would have seen them take home the title.

“Definitely for myself personally, it’s a game that I get nightmares off but sure look, the sun always rises, the sun is out today, so we will see what happens,” he says. “Hopefully we can get a better performance than we did the last time.”

No trade secrets disclosed today. But everyone knows Aki can play whatever is in front of him. He can truck up with the ball against the biggest of opponents or he can soft hand it to the outside players, which these days is just as likely to be tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong.

An explosive runner with the tackling ability to match, he is one player the others will follow and eagerly watch as they all attempt to set a stall in the opening 10 minutes.

Right thing

“There is a lot of ownership just to be able to express ourselves,” he says. “Playing what we see but also doing the right thing by making sure we earn the right to be able to play that type of game.

“We obviously can’t just throw the ball around and expect to score tries like that. We obviously have to be able to do the hard work first to get the opportunity to play that way.”

With Carbery’s installation at pivot, it would seem that a more collective, supportive spirit will be the order of the day. Sexton against Wales made himself a central figure at almost every play, even when the moves did not come off. His influence was pervasive and whatever adjustment Aki says is not required, reality says differently.

"Nothing changes. Joey is well equipped to run games," he says. "Joey just does his thing and we follow him and do what we are supposed to do. Obviously there is an onus on . . . there are a lot of leaders in our group and we have the mountain goat there, the 'Cheese', James Ryan. There's a lot of leaders there as well so we will just do our job and follow them.

“It just shows the resilience of Joey and obviously he’s had a few setbacks, it just shows how tough mentally he is and I know how excited he is to get this start. He loves being involved.”

In today’s word salad, reminiscent of Brian O’Driscoll’s 2009 offering of “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad,” all the players are mountain goats playing mountain goat rugby.

That is, he says, to “play what you see and see the space. Be able to trust your calls and be able to trust your ability and do what is right for the team. Whether that’s running, passing or kicking.”

He might have added not falling off a high ledge and cleverly surviving on slender pickings, all of which will be useful to come out the other side in St Denis.

“Look, every opportunity you get as a player,” he says, “you have to be able to take it with two hands and let your performance take care of itself.”

Amen to that.