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'People have their own opinions. You can't hide from it... I have thick skin'

Bundee Aki made his debut for Ireland last November and has become a vital cog in Joe Schmidt’s machine since.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

BUNDEE AKI, ROBBIE Henshaw, Garry Ringrose.

Three outstanding centres vying for Ireland’s two centre positions over the next month and beyond.

There are, of course, several other options for Joe Schmidt in midfield and the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Will Addison and Sammy Arnold will continue to push, but – with all due respect – it would be a shock if Ireland’s midfield pairing for next year’s World Cup doesn’t come from that more experienced trio.

Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose celebrate winning Ireland have strong options in midfield. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Henshaw and Ringrose perhaps have an advantage in playing together for Leinster, but Aki worked superbly with Henshaw at Connacht in the past, while he linked strongly with Ringrose in the latter stages of the Grand Slam success this year.

If all three are fit and firing when the World Cup rolls around, Schmidt has a seriously demanding decision in front of him.

Leaving Aki – who has the fewest caps of the trio with nine – out of the starting picture is difficult to envisage after his excellent first season with Ireland in 2017/18, during which time he helped Schmidt’s team to a November Tests clean sweep, started every game of the Grand Slam and featured in the series victory in Australia.

Aki’s debut for Ireland came less than a year ago in the 38-3 win over South Africa in Dublin, before which some critics questioned why the New Zealand native was being picked by Ireland.

The 28-year-old, who is with Ireland in Chicago for Saturday’s clash with Italy at Soldier Field, was well aware of the hubbub at the time but says his international team-mates always made him feel like part of the family.

“The boys around me made me feel welcome,” said Aki at Ireland’s team hotel in Chicago. “I’m one of them. I have thick skin.

“It’s all about the guys around you and making sure that you are impressing the coaches as well.

“Look, people have their own opinions. You can’t hide from it, you can’t do anything about it. You just have to focus on what you need to focus on.

Bundee Aki Aki at Ireland's team hotel in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I just wanted to do the best I could to put in a performance for the boys around me because they are the guys who I will be playing with.

“I knew what I wanted to do, it’s just sometimes you have to make sure that within yourself, you know what you are doing and what goals you have set. It’s about keeping that close to yourself and when the time arrived, like it did, I was thankful for the opportunity. I’m in a good head space at the moment.”

As with Connacht fans before them, Ireland’s supporters have certainly embraced Aki over the last year.

While he was the glue in the team in an unglamorous manner much of the time, there were also highlight reel moments like his linebreak and pass to CJ Stander for the score against England that has been nominated for World Rugby International Try of the Year.

Having been released by Tadhg Furlong’s delightful slight of hand, Aki’s decision-making in behind the England defence underlined that there is much more to his game than physicality.

“I’ve always known that I could play-make a little bit more but it’s about making sure that you do it at the right time and the right places,” said Aki.

“That try that CJ scored was a team try really. I don’t know who came up with that move but it didn’t work all week. I got smashed a few times but the boys stuck to their guns and obviously, it paid off.

“There is a lot of satisfaction to it because you are going into a week where you are practising it and it doesn’t pay off but you are still trusting that it is going to pay off. That’s exactly what we did – we just kept trusting it.

Ireland’s  Bundee Aki Aki breaks against England during the Grand Slam-clinching win. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“As you can see, the ball was meant to go to Ringer [Ringrose] on the outside. He was my support line but then you can see that we have guys who are working really hard off the ball.”

Aki put his decision-making down to “game awareness” and credited Stander for his sheer volume on the inside.

“You’re just trying to make a quick decision on the spot and it felt like CJ was the one.”

Aki will hope to provide a few more standout moments for Ireland this weekend in Chicago as they kick off their November schedule against Conor O’Shea’s Italy, although the Connacht centre appreciates that being flashy isn’t what Schmidt looks for.

He rejects the idea that he is more comfortable in the Ireland environment now, insisting that there is always an edge in such a competitive squad.

“It’s just making sure that all our details are right,” said Aki of Schmidt’s expectations. “Making sure that you are worried about what you need to get right. Making sure that you perform to the best that you can and everyone else will do the same.

“I think Joe has reiterated more in knowing your details and knowing what you need to do on the field.”

As for the aforementioned competition in midfield, Aki is aware that his form will need to be better than ever with Henshaw and Ringrose both fit. 

Bundee Aki Aki lifts weights at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Henshaw is at home in Ireland this week but Ringrose is in Chicago alongside Aki. 

“They’ve both got flair and skills,” said Aki. “If you are inside them, it just makes your role a lot easier, knowing that you can trust the skills that you have on the outside.

“You can just give them the ball and they can do what they want. You just run off them really.

“Garry and Robbie are two of the top centres in the world. It’s a pleasure playing alongside them.”

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Murray Kinsella

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