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Aki proving to be the big fish in Ireland's deep pool of centres

The Connacht star has been the most-used midfielder in an area Joe Schmidt has plenty of options.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WHILE NEWS OF Robbie Henshaw’s injury came as a surprise last week, the positive spin would be that there are few areas where Ireland are better equipped to handle such a setback.

For the past two years, Ireland’s starting centres have changed with a frequency that would make heads spin at the HR department at Real Madrid.

In total, across 21 games in 2018 and 2019, Joe Schmidt has only selected the same centre partnership for successive matches on four occasions.

In other words, Schmidt has changed his midfield pairing from one match to the next 16 times.

No one has started in the centre more often that Bundee Aki, who has been in Schmidt’s starting team 18 times from a possible 21 games. Garry Ringrose has started at centre 11 times, Robbie Henshaw six times, Chris Farrell five times, and there has been one start each for Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison, coming against Argentina and the United States respectively.

This tendency to chop and change has primarily been a result of injuries, with the most obvious example being Ireland’s Grand Slam winning Six Nations campaign in 2018.

This was when the strength in depth available to Schmidt in midfield really came to the fore, and the four centres who made the final squad for Japan - Henshaw, Aki, Ringrose and Farrell – all played some excellent rugby at various stages across the tournament.

With Ringrose nursing an ankle injury, Schmidt fielded the expected partnership of Aki and Henshaw for the opening two fixtures against France and Italy. 

However, the Kiwi was forced into a rethink when Henshaw injured his shoulder while diving over the line to score his second try in the Aviva Stadium rout of the Italians.

With Ringrose still recovering from his own injury, the door suddenly opened for Farrell, who had only made his Ireland debut the previous November, having signed for Munster following three seasons in the French Top14.

chris-farrell-and-garry-ringrose Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

On the occasion of his first Six Nations appearance, Farrell delivered a dominant performance in an often frantic 37-27 win that left Schmidt fielding questions if he had now played his way into the first choice XV.

The decision was quickly taken out of Schmidt’s hands when Farrell injured his ACL during an open training session the following week.

All of this disruption was happening at a time when the rest of Schmidt’s starting XV was much more clearly defined.

By that stage Ringrose had been declared fit to play, and responded with two wonderful performances against Scotland and England as Ireland sealed their third Grand Slam.

For the summer tour of Australia, the Henshaw-Aki partnership was again preferred for the opening Test loss to the Wallabies. Ringrose line out alongside Aki as Ireland won the second Test, before Henshaw and Aki were reunited for the series clinching third Test in Sydney.

At that stage, it appeared that Henshaw and Aki were Schmidt’s preferred combination, but the option was again taken out of his control by the time New Zealand visited in November, as Henshaw was sidelined with a hamstring problem.

The manner of Ireland’s epic performance that night, where both Ringrose and Aki delivered outstanding displays, once again raised the question of what Ireland’s best centre partnership was.

The debate was still in full flow by the time this year’s Six Nations rolled around. 

Ringrose and Aki were preferred for the opening game against England, with Henshaw pushed back the field as Schmidt experimented with the player at full-back, as first-choice No15 Rob Kearney was injured.

With Henhsaw himself picking up an injury, Farrell and Aki started the win against Scotland a week later. That partnership remained in place for the defeat of Italy, but the return of Ringrose saw Farrell lose his place for the final two games.

Yet with Ringrose failing to produce his best form at the close end of Leinster’s season, he too found his place in the Ireland team come under question.

Having filled in on the wing during Ireland’s warm-up games, and with Schmidt even pointing out his ability to play fly-half in his days as a schools player, there is a feeling that Ringrose’s versatility is now working against him in the battle for a starting place.

irelands-bundee-aki Aki on the move against Wales. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Farrell is being widely tipped to start alongside Aki against Scotland on Sunday, and should he perform well in Yokohama then the jersey will once again be his to lose.

It is quite the rise for a player generally considered to have been fourth in the pecking order earlier this year, but it is equally as sizable a turnaround for Ringrose. Less than a year on from starring in that famous defeat of the All Blacks, he could find himself pushed out to the edges of Schmidt’s team.

Brian O’Driscoll, a player that Ringrose was often compared to when he initially broke into the Leinster first team, recently admitted he would hold concerns about the Leinster player’s ability in defence, adding that he didn’t feel Ringrose has been ”quite at the level we’ve seen over the last couple of years.”

Aki, who has proven himself to be the most durable of the four players, is probably the only one who can currently consider himself certain of his place in the team.

Yet the past two seasons have shown just how quickly, and frequently, that can change.

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