Joe Schmidt admits Bundee Aki’s Rugby World Cup could be over
Ireland coach knows potential All Blacks last eight clash represents ‘a mountain to climb’
Bundee Aki with Robbie Henshaw after Ireland’s win over Samoa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
But the Irish coach did not sound especially optimistic about Aki avoiding a suspension: “I think Bundee is upright, you can see both of his hands behind the shoulder blades of the player who is just starting to come up. It’s all split second stuff. We live in hope, we’ll see what the judiciary decide but once it’s a red card you sense a loss of control over what happens next.
“No matter what you try to present, there is a very hard line and I certainly feel for Bundee. He is pretty devastated that his tournament, any further participation in the tournament is now at risk.”
Schmidt’s counterpart, Steve Jackson, had spoken in support of Aki as well and said they would do everything they could to help the player whose parents are both Samoan.
“I think Steve was a good player himself who has been coaching Super Rugby and coaching for some time,” said Schmidt. “I think he knows the game well, we’d both be pretty disappointed if Bundee does get ruled out of the rest of the tournament on the back of that tackle.
“I do genuinely say tackle, because that’s what it was. Both arms, both hands are behind the shoulders but there is a very hard line being taken and we’ll just have to accept whatever decision is taken by the judiciary.”
As to whether this hard line on high tackles was correct or not, Schmidt was less inclined to pass verdict.
“Look I think that’s a really broad question and it’s probably something that we’ll look at this individual case just as the judiciary will; that we won’t be making any broad sweeping statements about the line that’s been taken.
“I know amongst coaches there’s a fair bit of anxiety about it just because sometimes, unless you’re out there and you realise how little time you have between a loose ball suddenly being picked up and then somebody changing height, whether they’re dropping or whether they’re coming up, those precious few seconds don’t allow a lot of time to modify what you’re committed to.
“So in the end whatever decision is made will be made and it doesn’t really count for a lot what I think of it, other than feeling for Bundee if the decision is that he misses out next week.”
Ireland had already scored three tries and led 21-5 prior to Aki’s 29th minute sending-off, and while much of that was founded on the set-piece efficiency of the pack and the teams’ accuracy at the breakdown, there had been a better shape and substance to Ireland’s attacking patterns as well, with more tip on passes, offloads, good lines of running and plenty of width.
“They resorted to a more narrow approach thereafter but Schmidt was pleased with the performance overall: “I really liked the start again. I think we’ve started really well in all four games, we just haven’t continued it and I felt this time we continued it pretty well.
“It was disappointing to conced the try that we did. The Samoans muscled up really well for it. I thought we were tactically relatively solid once we lost Bundee because it would have been very hard to play with a huge amount of width. I felt the fourth try that we got was really effectively done after getting the maul going then Johnny shooting down the short side, and Jordan Larmour creating the try for Johnny prior to that.”
“In the second-half, it probably wasn’t great to watch but it was comforting to know that we were in the right part of the pitch and we went to a couple of strong points for us with the maul and the scrum and carried close. With a man down that’s inevitably probably the strong suit that you’re going to play to.”
If it comes to pass that the Japan-Scotland game is cancelled and so Ireland finish runners-up in Pool A, or that it is played and Scotland do not win by more than seven points or with a bonus point of their own, then Ireland will face the back-to-back champions next Saturday in Tokyo. It’s a daunting prospect, but Ireland will do so emboldened by this performance.
“I feel that you’ve got to be at your very, very best to have a chance and the All Blacks are a sort of team that you could play at your best and still not quite get the result. Because they weren’t number one in the world for ten years and they’re not back-to-back World Cup winners for no reason.
“They’re that because of the personnel they have, because of the culture they have and the performances they manage to put together on a very regular basis.
“So for us it would be, to a degree, a mountain to climb but I think after tonight the lads got their boots on, and they’ve got a few crampons, and they’ve taken a little bit of an ascent. Obviously the whole thing gets steeper next week but if it is the All Blacks, then we’ll look to scale those heights.”
Whoever Ireland play next week, they will have had the weekend off, with the All Blacks having a 13-day turnaround into the Saturday quarter-final, and the Springboks 12 days. Yet, this performance should be beneficial.
‘It’s one of those conundrums really,” said Schmidt. “You want to get some rhythm and possibly on the back of us not playing for nine days it’s probably important to play whereas I do think some of the other teams have had shorter turnarounds and therefore they’re probably delighted.”
“It’s enough work that we got through and hopefully it will stand to us. It was a lot of work, the forwards particularly really muscled up well and had to work really hard. That’s a little bit attritional but it’s something they enjoy doing anyway. Well they do at the time anyway, probably in the morning, they feel the effects of it.”
That said, such was Ireland’s dominance over Samoa that they only had to make 45 tackles, as well as missing 13.
There were a litany of contenders for the man of the match gong. The foot soldiers led the way, notably Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were at their best on the day they equaled the Peter Stringer-Ronan O’Gara half-back record of 55 Test starts together for Ireland, as a precursor to breaking it next week.
In the event it went to Jordan Larmour, who has hit a rich vein of form and has added another dimension to Ireland’s attacking play. Collectively Ireland beat 30 defenders, with Larmour’s dancing footwork accounting for a dozen of them.
He made 17 carries, only Stander had more, for 67 metres, and his two breaks led to one gorgeous try-scoring assist and a neat finish from Murray’s bullet-like pass. Schmidt conceded Larmour has put his hand up for selection in the quarter-final.
“Yeah, I think Jordan keeps putting his hand up and that’s one thing we really like about him. He puts his hand up no matter where he ends up. Look back to that Japan game, he ends up at 13, Luke McGrath was on the wing. Jordan ended up at 12 tonight, with Keith Earls at 13.
“I think his flexibility, his enthusiasm - he’s irrepressible. I don’t know how many tackles he slipped tonight. He got the ball under real pressure a few times and also created opportunities from having the ball under pressure.
“When he got that ball with a little bit of time and space to move, I thought when he took the outside break and got the fend and then the timing and the accuracy of his inside off-load to Johnny for the try was top notch.
“He’s a youngster who we try to have involved; we’re just not sure where sometimes. Sometimes he is a little bit maverick and he wanders around because he’s not quite sure he’s playing at any one point but part of that is probably our point because we keep swapping him around,” said Schmidt, smiling.
“But we swap him around because he’s so versatile and because his skill set and his enthusiasm allow him to survive wherever we put him. I thought he was really good tonight.”