Brotherhood and kinship become central to Ireland squad
Rob Kearney and the team closed ranks around Bundee Aki during his baptism of fire
Brothers in arms: Rob Kearney and Bundee Aki at Saturday’s Guinness Series clash with South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Brotherhood. It’s a word not often heard spilling out into public from the bear-pit of the professional game. The concept of a bound alliance, with its antiquated undertow, places it more centrally in a Sunday school sermon than the trenches.
In Saturday’s match against the Springboks, brotherhood became central to Rob Kearney; kinship, too.
Kearney has more experience of it than most in the Irish team. The 31-year-old noticed a nuanced change in the side that beat the Springboks by a record margin. The players were celebrating minor victories, tackles, scrums and lineouts.
“I was actually thinking the same thing on Sunday evening,” he says. “That we were celebrating a lot of those small wins.
“I can’t put my finger on it this time, as to why there is a good energy. But certainly that was something that we demonstrated at the weekend.”
Much of it, he says, had to do with Bundee Aki, his media baptism in an Irish shirt, and views on the superiority of bloodline over the three-year residency for which he was getting roundly hammered.
“We would have recognised over the last few weeks that Bundee was taking a little bit of stick for nothing that he’s done,” adds Kearney.
“He has just wanted to come here and play for Ireland and it probably does bring you together a little bit more. Guys understand that maybe he needed a little bit more love over the last week or two than he had been used to.”
Aki’s sinning was conceptual. It was the notion that an infant who leaves Ireland in 1930, never to return, has a daughter, who never lives in Ireland, who has a son, who never lives Ireland but has an entitlement to play with Ireland because of granny, whereas Aki, who has lived in Ireland for over three years, does not.
When you are going out to represent your country in big games, you need a massive level of togetherness
The media attention insured that pre the Boks match Aki was under the threat of further outrage if he didn’t perform. He knew it, Joe Schmidt knew it, the IRFU knew it and the players knew it.
“Yeah I think so,” says Kearney. “When you’re getting a huge amount of column space and you’re on the front page of national newspapers the morning of the game, you do a feel a little but more pressure, and I’m sure he did.
“When you are going out to represent your country in big games, you need a massive level of togetherness. Brotherhood is a word you hear a huge amount of times between players.”
“When you go out to battle like that it is something that you do need.”
Kearney does not pretend to have been directly inconvenienced by Aki’s inclusion in the centre. He understands that as a fullback he can remove himself from the hurt suffered by the centre who was overlooked because of Aki’s inclusion.
But when residency player Jared Payne came into the Irish squad under the same terms as Aki, he came as an Ulster fullback converted to centre and very quickly put his hand up to Schmidt as being versatile and able to play both positions at international level.
Payne’s partner is an Irish woman and one wonders where that leaves him in the Irish supremacy stakes. His kids will be pure-bred Irish qualified. Can bloodlines work in reverse?
Kearney has sucked it up and also faced it down. But his view has not changed.
“It is a much tougher question but I have seen Jared wear the number 15 jersey too,” he says, cooling jets in the room. “I think one of the values of this team is you do what you have to do to make the team better.
Aki will be remembered for being involved in a record knock against South Africa. Kearney and the team will remember it similarly
“I suppose that is easier to say if you are in the team. It is a tougher question to answer if you are losing your place to one of those guys. But you have to roll in behind the team.”
Aki rolled in behind the team. His first tackle, which led to a scrum penalty, saw the Bok prop Coenie Oosthuizen taken off with an injured knee. He will now return home to South Africa.
“It set a massive tone, and when you see the opposition tighthead going off after 70 seconds, it’s a nice feeling. It is,” says Kearney, cutting through the diplomacy.
“And then to go and win the scrum penalty straight away. It set down a real marker at the start of the game.”
Aki will be remembered for being involved in a record knock against South Africa. Kearney and the team will remember it similarly.
Not blood brothers, say the critics. A band of brothers nonetheless.
Leinster’s Jordi Murphy and Ulster’s Sean Reidy have joined the Irish squad following injuries to Irish flankers Tommy O’Donnell and Dan Leavy, which ruled them out of selection this week.
With Peter O’Mahony having received a number of stitches to his ear following last week’s match against South Africa, either of the two players has a chance of taking to the pitch against Fiji at the weekend.
Keith Earls has returned to Munster where he will rehab his hamstring injury, while John Ryan presented with a calf injury following the game and will join Earls in Munster.
The remainder of the match-day 23 emerged with the usual bumps and bruises, but are expected to be fit to train this week.