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O’Mahony questions media narrative surrounding Aki’s selection

‘I didn’t think it was very impressive from a media point of view to be honest’

Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw in action during the Ireland training session at Carton House on Thursday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The media narrative surrounding the selection of Bundee Aki, a New Zealander of Samoan heritage who declared for Ireland via the residency rule, has been questioned by Peter O’Mahony.

“I’ve been very lucky to play alongside some players who have come in and benefited from that rule,” said O’Mahony. “It’s a rule and Bundee or any of the lads have done nothing wrong.”

Aki, a resident in Galway since 2014, makes his debut for Ireland against South Africa this Saturday at the Aviva stadium.

“I can’t understand why there is such a focus on him personally,” O’Mahony continued. “I didn’t think it was very impressive from a media point of view to be honest, but look that’s the job and the life that we run, it’s part and parcel. I’m sure it’s water off a duck’s back for him.”

The residency rule allowing non-natives to play international rugby changes from three to five years this summer.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt claims to be oblivious to the Aki chatter as he’s ensconced within the “Carton bubble” but questions flowed on the topic during today’s media briefing.

Jared Payne [another Kiwi recruited by the IRFU with the intention of qualifying under residency] had real experience against South Africa and Bundee brings that too,” said Schmidt, who was later pressed by sections of the written media to give an opinion on the legitimacy of selecting the 27-year-old who played such a crucial role in Connacht’s march to a Pro 14 title in 2015.

“I think sometimes where you are born is less relevant to where you have invested over the last period of time. I think Bundee has invested incredibly well in the west. They have benefited from his experience, his commitment and his durability. Bundee has played an immense amount of minutes for Connacht. He rocks up week to week to week.

“It is an unfortunate distraction. I do feel a little bit of sympathy for Bundee himself because he is just doing what he loves doing and is very good at doing. We hope it doesn’t distract him.”

Aki will line up beside his former Connacht midfielder partner Robbie Henshaw, and the Leinster centre hopes that Aki plays his own game against the Springboks.

“Bundee is a class player, he has added real value to this group and the boys enjoy his company here,” said Henshaw. “We should let him express himself against the South Africans.”

Annoyed by the debate? “I haven’t really noticed it,” said Henshaw. “I know him so well, he is a great friend of mine, so I was really excited to have him in here. A player like that can only improve our team. Us as players going forward, we want to be the best we can be.”

On it went. Eventually the IRFU communications manager requested that the line of questioning focused on Saturday’s game.