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Bundee Aki ready to renew school battle with England's Tuilagi

The pair played against each other in a Cornwall schools match 12 years ago.

THE EXACT DETAILS are a little sketchy — it was over 10 years ago now — but Bundee Aki and Manu Tuilagi, who are set to go head-to-head in a heavyweight midfield battle at the Aviva Stadium, have played against each other before.

While on a scholarship with Truro College in Cornwall, Aki — ‘a skinny 16-year-old kid’ — lined up against John Cleveland College, a renowned Leicestershire rugby institution, in 2007.

Bundee Aki Aki at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The opposition had a certain Manu Tuilagi on the wing that day. 

“He wasn’t that big but he was very strong, still as strong as he is now,” Aki recalls.

“He was a young kid back then. I remember playing that game. It was me and Josh Matavesi [the Fiji and Newcastle Falcons centre] playing in that same team. That was the only time, back then, but I didn’t go up against him as he was obviously out on the wing so I stayed away.”

12 years later, the Connacht centre and Tuilagi are set to renew their school battle on the international stage as Ireland’s Grand Slam defence opens with an eagerly-anticipated showdown against England on Saturday afternoon.

Having become a key figure in Joe Schmidt’s side during his 15 months in the international set-up, the 28-year-old will win his 13th cap against England and his match-up with the returning Tuilagi will be intriguing. 

“He will be a big ball carrier threat,” Aki says. “Whenever you play the English squad they are a very physical team from their pack and to their back line. You’ve just got to make sure your physicality is up there. That’s your first point of contact, making sure you make a statement and make a mark on that.

“Coming back from injury he obviously wants to put a statement out there and he has been playing good footy in the Champions Cup. It’s obviously going to be just as much of a task as in every other game. It will be interesting.”

Similarly interesting is Schmidt’s decision to relocate Robbie Henshaw to fullback, and drop Rob Kearney — seemingly untouchable, and previously selected every time he was fit — from the entire matchday 23.

Aki knows Henshaw well from the Athlone native’s Connacht days, citing the western province’s famous victory over Munster at Thomond Park during their Pro12-winning season under Pat Lam as an example of when the pair wore the 12 and 15 shirts in the same game.

“It was a massive win,” the Auckland native smiles. “He obviously knows what he can do at the back. He is an attacking threat just as much as he is out in front.

Bundee Aki The Connacht centre will win his 13th cap against England. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Robbie is a class player. Whatever position Joe puts him he puts everything into it so it’s good.”

Aki is, of course, a beneficiary of Schmidt’s decision to use Henshaw in the backfield, as he continues his blossoming midfield partnership in Garry Ringrose, having done so at Twickenham last year and indeed against the All Blacks.

“For me, I’m just trying to do what I need to do for the team and not for myself,” he added.

I’m trying to fit in well with the plans Joe has for the team and trying to work around guys, whether it’s Ringer or Robbie outside me. I’m just trying to do my art, which is a small cog in the wheel.

“It’s the preparation throughout the week and having the confidence to know your work and the confidence in the guys around you. You have the World Player of the Year [Sexton] inside you so what can you do? You can’t complain. He’s playing out of his boots at the moment and Ringer too.” 

One of Aki’s foremost responsibilities on Saturday will be to nullify the threat of Tuilagi, who starts for England for the first time in four years after a horror time with injuries.

“Hopefully it’s a team job,” he laughs. “I’ll try my very best. It’s cool to see him playing again.”

There will be no avoiding him on this occasion.

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Ryan Bailey

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