Rugby World Cup: Sympathy all round for Bundee Aki as he prepares to learn his fate
Samoa’s Tim Nanai-Williams, who grew up with Aki, backs Ireland’s centre after red
Bundee Aki hugs Samoa’s Rey Lee-Lo after Ireland’s win in Fukuoka. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The one fly in Ireland’s ointment following Saturday’s commanding win over Samoa was the 29th minute sending-off of Bundee Aki. Derek Hegarty, a solicitor and Partner in William Fry’s law firm, will represent Aki in the player’s impending disciplinary hearing after being summoned by the Irish squad’s director of operations, Ger Carmody, within moments of incurring a red card in the 47-5 win over Samoa.
Aki will attend a hearing before an independent Judicial Committee chaired by Adam Casselden SC (Australia) joined by former international coach Frank Hadden (Scotland) and former referee Valeriu Toma (Romania) in Tokyo at 7.30pm local time (11.30am Irish) on Monday.
Hegarty may use the example of Piers Francis, amongst others, who was cleared by an independent judicial committee after he was cited for an act of foul play for a high hit in England’s game against the USA. The Irish management have also timed the incident, and Hegarty will most likely point out that Aki’s reaction time to Ulupano Seuteni catching the ball and effecting his high tackle on the Samoan outhalf was measured at 0.2 seconds.
Of strong Samoan extraction, both his parents are from there and he had cousins playing for the Pacific Islanders, there is sympathy for Aki’s plight on both sides.
Their fullback, Clermont’s Tim Nanai-Williams, ventured: “It was very unfortunate to have him go off. He is a close friend of mine. We competed with each other and it was just a bit weird seeing him on the other side and seeing him go off like that, I know it wasn’t what he expected.
“It’s very hard. It’s very hard to change your technique when everything is going a hundred miles an hour and you’ve got to try to protect yourself as much as you can and I honestly hope he gets off for it. It is just a reaction thing, a split second. He is obviously trying to protect himself too but, in saying that, that is just how the rules are these days and we just have to try and do as much as can and live by the rules.”
Nanai-Williams and Aki have been friend since childhood. “We were pretty much five blocks from each other, ten minutes, so we had the old street touch rugby games,” said the Samoan fullback, who also revealed that a few of his teammates went out for dinner with Aki last week.
“It was his shout. No, it was good to have dinner with him. It’s been years since I have seen him, back in New Zealand, so it was good to catch up.
“I haven’t seen him since he left the Chiefs, about four or five years ago. Yeah, so that’s the first time since four or five years ago. It was quite nice to catch up with him and have some dinner and have him to shout for it.
“It was more after the game that we had a chat, seeing what me and him and Rey (Lee-Lo) have achieved through the years. Especially me and him (Aki) knowing each other since we were kids and just to see what he has gone on to achieve and both of us being on the world stage. You can’t get better than that. I just said to keep his head up and I’m very proud of him.”
Jacob Stockdale had been on the receiving end of a shoulder hit to the jaw by the Samoan hooker Seilala Lam, but Stockdale had dipped before contact and referee Nic Berry deemed it worthy of a yellow card.
“I thought there wasn’t an awful lot of difference between Bundee’s tackle and the tackle on me,” said Stockdale who, of course, is going to stand up for his teammate. “That’s not a comment on anyone’s technique or anything like that, it’s more on the inconsistency between cards that we’ve seen in this World Cup. It’s disappointing for Bundee but he’ll bounce back.”
The curse continues and, remarkably, the question as to which is Ireland’s best midfield partnership remains unanswered.
“Obviously his robustness and his physicality is massive for us,” said Stockdale of Aki. “If he wasn’t available it would be a big loss but we’ve a lot of very, very good centres. Chris Farrell, Garry, Robbie, there’s three class centres to pick from if Bundee doesn’t make it.
In all of this the 2019 Rugby World Cup will make players re-define their tackle technique, as Stockdale conceded.
“Definitely. If you get it wrong it’s a red card. It’s something we’re massively focused on to make sure we don’t do. Bundee’s was such a reactionary thing because the ball bounced and he was going from either carrying or making a tackle and he just was really unfortunate. That’s rugby.”