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Bundee Aki scorcher will silence the doubters, says Schmidt

Debutant could add intriguing dimension to attacking game against South Africa

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki have their picture taken with Jennifer Malone at the Ireland rugby squad training at Carton House, Co Kildare. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Bundee Aki becomes the 46th debutant under Joe Schmidt against South Africa on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, and the 91st player to represent Ireland in that time. As with the remarkable Ian McKinley, who is in line to make his debut for his adopted country of Italy against Fiji in Catania, the 27-year-old Aki qualifies by dint of the residency ruling on what will be a momentous day for both young men and their families.

Like the New Zealand-born Andy Ward, who helped Ulster win a European Cup before playing 28 times for Ireland through the residency ruling, so Aki thrillingly helped Connacht to a stunning Pro12 success and has stayed loyal to them, despite more lucrative offers from Clermont Auvergne and others in France. And now, in his fourth season with Connacht, he too will play for Ireland.

Of those 91 players used by Schmidt, Aki is only the ninth player under the residency ruling. Put another way, only 8 per cent of the 1,000-plus caps awarded by Schmidt fall into this category. It’s more a trickle than a flood, yet the selection of Ward, Richardt Strauss, CJ Stander, Robbie Diack and others created comparatively little fuss.

Hopefully, and presumably, an inclusively minded Irish crowd will warmly celebrate Aki’s first appearance in an Irish jersey. Due to the clash of colours with the Springboks, Ireland will actually be wearing an all-grey strip, which one also hopes will not cause the same visibility problems it once famously did for Manchester United, according to Alex Ferguson.  

Midfield partnership

Neither Schmidt nor Aki made the ruling, and the thought of Aki playing for Ireland, especially when renewing his old Connacht midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw, is an exciting one. Aki’s powerful ball-carrying, footwork, acceleration and ability to free his hands adds an intriguing dimension to Ireland’s attacking game. He also deserves his place.

Unlike the aforementioned Ward et al, the New Zealand-born centre, of Samoan origin, was the subject of a debate on primetime TV in the build-up to this game. Amid a barrage of questions on the topic – which eventually prompted the media and communications officer to request only questions on Saturday’s game – Schmidt was asked if he thought this was unfair.

“I’m luckily unaware of it to be honest. I guess people will throw things up because they’re things that they feel they can create interest about. Once something gets on the upward spiral of attracting media interest it does spiral up, and I really hope for his sake and for the team’s sake, that he has a scorching game. And hopefully that will appease some of the doubters, but I know there’s an incredible amount of people who are really positive about his involvement as well.”

It will also be fascinating to see how Aki adapts in a backline also featuring a home debutant, Jacob Stockdale, and Andrew Conway, who will make his full home debut, although Schmidt maintained: “Bundee’s slotted in really well but I don’t think it’s any different for Darren Sweetnam or anyone else. Darren’s been in one or two other camps, Bundee came in for just the single day we had earlier in the season. So people have dipped their toe in and now they’ve got to plunge in and it’s a pretty deep pool first up.

‘Instinctive players’

“One of the things that is good about Bundee and a few of the other players that have come in is they are quite instinctive players. Jacob Stockdale, his instinct is to carry and to be very strong and try to take the outside break, and if that’s what he sees that’s what we want to back himself doing. It’s as simple as that, really.”

The match-day squad could also see home debuts for Rob Herring, a South African of Irish ancestry, and the upwardly mobile 21-year-old James Ryan, who are joined on the bench by the New Zealand-born 22-year-old Joey Carbery.   

Ironically, the beneficiaries of the hamstrung Keith Earls’s latest misfortune, most probably for yet another entire test window under Schmidt, are Munster team-mates Conway and the uncapped replacement Sweetnam, who comes in comparatively under the radar. Cork-born and reared, this will presumably be approved by the Little Irelanders out there.

“He seems a real calm, settled sort of guy,” said Schmidt. “He doesn’t get ruffled and I think a lot of times when you make errors stepping up to the next level, yes, it’s more physical, yes, you’ve got less time and space, so there’s more urgency to make decisions and you can be unsettled by that.

“He’s pretty calm. He’s got some good footwork. He knows where the try line is. He finishes well. He’s got some good defensive habits and some that we’ll keep working on. He’s a package that’s interesting and he’ll be looking to become a more complete package through these three weeks.”

Window of opportunity

This being the first of 19 Tests before the 2019 World Cup warm-up matches, and one of only nine which fall outside the Six Nations, it offers a window of opportunity to broaden the squad’s base, and also to further develop the Irish team’s game.

Schmidt spoke about the team’s increasing ability to adjust. “In sport there are no massive shifts in the way the game is played. The Fosbury Flop that came about as a massive transition – that doesn’t happen [IN RUGBY)]. There are little bits and pieces that gets adjustments and we are looking to adjust little bits of our game, so we can play with a bit of variety and we can be a little innovative, but we can be really accurate as well.”