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'He was a great player back then and he's come on leaps and bounds': Crotty braced for Aki reunion

The Connacht star will have a big role to play against the nation of his birth on Saturday.

RYAN CROTTY DIDN’T look fully convinced that he would get a chance to match up opposite Bundee Aki in midfield this Saturday, but the prospect of a reunion is an exciting one.

Ryan Crotty Ryan Crotty speaking to the media in Dublin. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The versatile Crusader had reason to doubt that the Connacht man would feature, with a combination of an ankle knock and the assumption that Robbie Henshaw was taken out of the firing line just in time to be ready for the visit of the All Blacks.

However, shortly before Crotty began speaking, the IRFU issued confirmation that the Athlone powerhouse would miss the remaining November Tests.

Losing the 25-year-old to a hamstring issue means Ireland will be without “an outstanding ball-runner,” as Crotty called Henshaw. But there will be plenty to occupy the All Blacks if Garry Ringrose and Aki can come through the week unscathed to start in tandem, as they did for the Grand Slam decider in Twickenham.

Bundee Aki celebrates Aki celebrates the Chiefs' Super Rugby win in 2013. Source: Photosport/Mark Taylor/INPHO

Crotty, of course, has known of the Connacht stalwart’s inimitable strengths for much longer than that having come face-to-face with Aki in Canterbury and Counties Manukai colours as well as Super Rugby battles between the Chiefs and Crusaders – including the 2013 Super Rugby semi-final, which was shaded by the north islanders.

“It’s awesome to see him going so well over here,” Crotty said today in the All Blacks’ Blanchardstown base.

“He was a great player back then and he’s come on leaps and bounds since he came over here. It’s cool to see him getting his opportunity.

He adds: “It’s a great challenge. Whoever gets to play against them, we’ll be blinking excited for.

Ryan Crotty Crotty on the run for Crusaders. Source: Photosport/Anton de Villiers/INPHO

“They’ve got class players right throughout their back-line. They’re playing great at the moment, whoever pulls on 12 and 13 we’ll have to prepare pretty diligently.”

Both the utility back and hooker Dane Coles wore a mischievous grin when asked if they had gotten used to seeing compatriots pop up as rivals in far flung international matches.

Such is the depth of talent in New Zealand rugby, the All Blacks cannot offer top tier competitions for all the excellent players they produce. So, naturally, players travel to Europe, Asia or America to seek out the best career path available.

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Just two days on from encountering his ex-Hurricanes team-mate Brad Shields wearing the red rose in Twickenham, Coles decides he is the one who should field the question.

“Mate, it was pretty weird last week playing against Shieldsy. I went to check the ground before kick-off, I was pretty relaxed, and there he was with headphones on and not (giving away) too much.

Brad Shields Brad Shields before coming face-to-face with his ex-Hurricanes team-mates. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It is weird, especially when you’re so close. I played so much rugby with Shieldsy and when you have a personal relationship it’s quite difficult. But once you’re on the field… I tried to counter a ruck and he was like: ‘come on then!’”

In fact, friendships were put aside even before the first whistle.

“I gave him a ring during the week and he wasn’t answering my calls. So I text him and he was like: ‘I’m not allowed talk to All Blacks this week!’ He had media and stuff like that, but we had a little chat on the phone, wished each other good luck and then we were into it.

“You put those relationships aside when you’re on the field and you go at it. Then after the game you can have a beer. We swapped jerseys, which was a pretty special moment for ourselves. It was cool.”

Not as cool as the icy stares directed Shields’ way during New Zealand’s Kapa o Pango haka.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him, mate. I found him and I was just looking straight at him. We locked eyes for the whole haka. He wasn’t giving me much and I was going pretty hard at him, so it was a good little moment.”

Aki should expect to meet a steely gaze just ahead of 7pm on Saturday night too.

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Sean Farrell

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