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'Bundee runs the show in Connacht, he has to bring a little bit of that to us' -- Rory Best

The uncapped Aki has been at the centre of all this week’s debate and he will have ample opportunity to change the conversation tonight.

Andrew Conway, Bundee Aki, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Conor Murray and Peter O'Mahony during the team photo Captain's run japes as Ireland pull on the grey jersey they'll wear against South Africa. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO


Five, 10 minutes max.

Perhaps even much, much closer to the 17.30 kick-off against South Africa in the Aviva Stadium this evening, Bundee Aki will wipe his feet and welcome himself right on in to the international arena.

He’ll bring the crowd to his feet and the laborious debate over his legal inclusion in this Ireland team be will drowned out by roars from four provinces.

We can’t predict the manner of his impact. Maybe it will be the sort of thunderous hit that rocked Johnny Sexton in Edinburgh, but the Auckland-born Connacht man is much more than brute force, he brings a delicate touch on top of excellent rugby intelligence to Ireland’s midfield.

Selecting Aki at 12 gives Ireland an exciting dimension in attack. His ability to offload in contact is worthy of high praise, but in addition to that he possesses a fine range of passing weapons pre-tackle.

Robbie Henshaw must be itching to reform his partnership with his former provincial team-mate as it offers the potential to free him up for so much of the open play all-action phases that he thrives upon.

Bundee Aki, Jonathan Sexton and Robbie Henshaw Aki, Sexton and Henshaw discuss their approach at yesterday's captain's run. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Sexton ought to benefit from Aki’s passing ability too, with defensive attention and spacing getting drawn out of his lane. It’s just a matter of Aki bringing all that reassuring swagger he plays with at the Sportsground in among the higher graded talents of the international stage.

“They’re picked for a reason,” said Rory Best of the matchday squad’s two uncapped players after leading the captain’s run yesterday.

“I think it’s just to bring that out and don’t sit back and wait for something to happen. Especially with Bundee. The reports coming out of Galway from boys like Robbie is that Bundee runs the show there.

“He really has to bring a little bit of that to us. Don’t just sit back and let other people organise, he has to be the guy that has to step up. If Johnny’s out of the play; in a ruck or having carried or whatever, to step up and be the guy to make a play. That’s what he’s been doing and it’s important that he does that.

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Bundee Aki and Rory Best Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Ultimately,” says Best returning to a more general message that can also be applied to Darren Sweetnam who will begin the day in the number 23 jersey, “go out and enjoy it. These are special days, to be lucky enough to win on your first cap at home against a team like South Africa is special, and I think it’s a shame if you look back on Monday or Tuesday or in five or 10 years time and look back and think ‘I didn’t enjoy any of that’.

“You’re going to be nervous, so just enjoy the nerves, the ups and downs that go with it, right up to half past five.”

However, with all the experience of a man ready for his 105th Test cap, a 20th as Ireland captain, Best concedes that such memories are ultimately made and moulded by the result. The pain of ‘celebrating’ his 200th Ulster cap with a facile home loss to Leinster is far to fresh in his mind for him to be talked into anything different.

“People will either say their first cap (when looking at career highlights) which you almost feel obliged to (say) because it’s the first time you pull on the shirt, but when you scratch the surface it always comes back to games that they won.

Rory Best leaves the pitch on his 100th appearance for Ireland Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“For me, the Australia game was my 100th cap. I’ll remember it for my 100th cap but also because we won that game. The New Zealand game in Chicago, all of that. My 200th game for Ulster, two weeks ago… I’ll remember it, but it will not go down as one of my fondest memories because we were well beaten.

“Ultimately, as much as it’s an honour to play for Ireland, the greatest honour is to win for Ireland.”

Winning as captain is twice as sweet. Yet he knows that his 104 caps and 35 years can be viewed as potential cons as well as the pros of his candidacy.

Best was adamant that he wouldn’t open the speculation about whether he could keep motoring on up until he was a 37-year-old captain leading Ireland at the 2019 World Cup. However, as long the body continues to serve him well, he’ll serve his country.

“Joe asked me to captain the side again for this season and I’m very happy to do it.

“Until I feel that my body starts to let me down… okay, the hamstring injury, but that can happen to anyone at any time

“If anything, for me, it’s probably a sign I’m getting faster if I’m getting it at this stage.”

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Sean Farrell

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