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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 23 January, 2020

Powerhouse centre Aki cherishes special Six Nations debut for Ireland

The Connacht man is keen to keep adding to his caps under Joe Schmidt.

Murray Kinsella reports from Paris

THERE IS NO doubt about the fact that Bundee Aki is physically built to play Test rugby, with his Six Nations debut against France on Saturday underlining the fact again.

The Connacht centre showed his ability to step up to the international arena in November, his very first hit as an Ireland international – combining with Johnny Sexton – sending South Africa’s Coenie Oosthuizen backwards and off the pitch with an injury.

Bundee Aki celebrates after the game Aki celebrates Ireland's win in Paris. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Aki has always been willing to hammer into contact, with his heavy frame perfectly suited to winning collisions other centres might not.

It’s one of the reasons Joe Schmidt is a fan. There simply aren’t many athletes like Aki in Irish rugby, and certainly not in midfield.

Robbie Henshaw is a superb ball carrier too, but he looks to be enjoying the increased space that comes with the 13 shirt in recent times for Leinster and Ireland. Aki is now finding himself doing the bulk of the meaty midfield carries for Schmidt’s side.

He fulfilled his role with quiet excellence against the French, eking out a gainline advantage for his team even in dense traffic and thumping les Bleus‘ ball carriers whenever provided with the opportunity to do so.

His reward for a mammoth physical task that also included some important ruck clearouts was a taste of Six Nations victory at the first time of asking.

“It’s probably one of the best I’ve ever experienced in the game,” said the former Chiefs centre of the thrilling finale that saw Johnny Sexton’s drop goal win it for Ireland. “My first Six Nations and no better way to finish than like that!

“Obviously, we have hardly won here [before] and it’s tough to win here. And for us to come out with that win, that last drop goal was unbelievable. I’ll take everything and cherish it all.”

Aki’s utter delight when Sexton stole the win was clear as he sprinted back into Ireland’s half, chasing the out-half and leaping up into his arms in celebration before the pair were mobbed by the rest of their team-mates.

Bundee Aki celebrates The 27-year-old was a powerful presence in midfield. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was a special one,” said Aki with a smile. “Johnny, I look up to him. He’s got a massive
heart. To have that courage a fair way back to nail that kick, it’s only world-class players who step up, put their hands up and nail those big moments. And he sure did.”

Aki’s physically demanding evening did leave him sore after he collided knee-on-knee with French out-half Matthieu Jalibert in the opening half, the 19-year-old debutant being forced off injured.

Irish centre Aki knew straight away he had a dead leg but said it was “one of those where
you’ve just got to make sure that you bite the pain for a bit and then try on solider on.”

So Aki did and he was pleased to report that a couple of days of recovery should clear the lingering swelling and pain in his leg.

The 27-year-old is hungry for another chance in the green jersey as soon as possible and said he’s eager to get a shot at Italy this weekend in Dublin.

“We’ve just got to keep working,” said Aki. “We have a lot of work-ons that we can take out of this game, and we can only improve from here.

“There are a lot of things that us as young fellas, and us as a team, can look back and see how we can better ourselves. That’s the only way we can do it.

“Italy’s going to be another tough team to play and we’ve just go to make sure we take it step by step, get our injuries right and get our minds right and make sure we go out there and play well.”

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Murray Kinsella

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