Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
ANOTHER GAME, ANOTHER midfield partner for Bundee Aki.
Not only will the Connacht centre link up with the fit-again Garry Ringrose for the first time against Scotland this weekend, but the partnership will be the 25th midfield combination used by Joe Schmidt in his four-year tenure.
Source: Billy Stickland
Aki has started all three of Ireland’s Six Nations outings to date, alongside Robbie Henshaw for the wins over France and Italy and then Chris Farrell for the round three defeat of Wales.
As Schmidt’s midfield resources have been stretched to the limit, Aki — who, remember, only made his debut back in November — has remained the one constant in this championship and will win his sixth cap this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium.
The Kiwi-born centre has brought the same energy and enthusiasm to his game in a green shirt as he has done with Connacht, and has made himself right at home in this Ireland squad, becoming a popular and important member of the group.
“I’m pretty luck to be fairly honest with the injuries we have in our squad,” he says, in typically self-effacing fashion.
“I’m just pretty lucky to be out there playing amongst the boys and play every single game so far is a blessing. The guys around me are helping me. I’m just pretty pleased to be here.
“I feel at home in the squad, they’ve made me feel at home. I think when you have the likes of Murray, Johnny [Sexton], Rob Kearney and Joe as your head coach. He’s a world class coach as well as Andy Farrell, what can you complain about?
“You’ve got world class people around you and you’re just looking to feed off them.”
Aki has made a big impression during his short time in the Carton House environment, and his positivity and passion has translated into his performances in a green shirt so far, with the 27-year-old opening his try-scoring ledger with scores against Italy and Wales.
But what makes Aki such a valuable component of Schmidt’s side is his robustness and physicality in the midfield channels, tireless work ethic and sound defensive ability — he topped Ireland’s tackle stats against Italy. There is also his unwavering search for self-improvement.
“We have individuals that will need to put our hand up [against Scotland] and I’ve done that this week, looking at my own game to make sure I better myself and help all the boys around me.
“We’re always looking to improve and that’s one of the factors that we have in our game, looking to improve our defence.”
Source: Bryan Keane
Aki has already become a defensive leader for Ireland but even with the loss of Henshaw and then Farrell through injury, he doesn’t feel he needs to take on added responsibility this weekend as Ringrose slots back in after an injury-ravaged nine months.
“Garry has slotted in very easily, he’s been here before and knows what it takes to play an international game,” he continues. “I’m just here to feed off him, he’s slotted in really well this week and has trained really well. He looks in good shape.
“It’s cool to mix and match with the boys around you and you’re always learning with the boys around you. Garry brings in a different aspect with his game and I’m always looking to learn off him.”
While the loss of Farrell strips Ireland of real physicality in the centre, Ringrose will bring a different dimension to Ireland’s attack with his darting acceleration, quick feet and ability to get around the outside an exciting prospect in tandem with the explosive Aki.
The only concern is that the 23-year-old has played just six games for Leinster this season, with shoulder and ankle injuries denying him a real opportunity to kick on from last year when he started nine straight games for Ireland.
Schmidt has no such concern, and Aki is just looking forward to playing with a ‘world class’ player.
“Garry has been here before and has more experience than I have and I’m just feeding off whatever he has and the way he plays. There’s a wide spread of players around us who know how to do their own job so just focus on myself and make sure I do the right thing.
“I don’t have to change my own game. I’ve just got to make sure I’m comfortable and play the way I want to play and play well with Ringer.”
While Aki and Ringrose will hope to strike an instant understanding, and certainly the last two weeks will have played an important role in establishing that, they will come up against the settled Scotland pair of Huw Jones and Peter Horne.
The in-form Jones is just one of several threats in a dangerous Scotland backline and Aki, having played against Glasgow sides coached by Gregor Townsend, knows they are a real danger to Ireland’s Grand Slam bid.
“They are a world class team and they’re coming right towards the end of the competition,” the centre says. “They’re hard to beat at the moment and we’re looking to make sure we do our job right and perform right.
Source: Billy Stickland
“They have a lot of firepower, the boys are playing good footy and they’re playing a lot of expansive rugby. Like I said, every game, every week, is another tough task ahead of us and Scotland is one of them. We just need to focus on ourselves and make sure we play well.”
Saturday will be another significant occasion for Aki as he continues to take the challenges of international rugby in his stride, with the Auckland native always quick to remind himself of his journey to this point and the people who have made it all possible.
“Just thinking of where I’ve come from to where I am now, I think it’s just the best,” he adds.
“I’m pretty happy with where I am and that’s a testament to the hard work that we’ve put in and to the guys around you that have helped you. I’m just relishing it and taking every moment as it comes.
“I always speak to family before the game. They always just make sure that I’m feeling fine and that I’m happy, making sure that my head is in the game and that I don’t get too ahead of myself.”
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