Saturday 17 March 2018

Criticism of Aki is unfair, he's done nothing wrong and we're lucky to have him - Murray

Ireland scrum-half defends Connacht star who is coming under fire ahead of debut against South Africa

Murray: Jumping to Aki defence. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Murray: Jumping to Aki defence. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Conor Murray has leapt to the defence of Bundee Aki, saying his new Ireland colleague has come in for unfair criticism.

The Auckland-born Connacht centre is expected to make his international debut for his adopted country on Saturday against South Africa and has become the latest lightning rod for those railing against World Rugby's three-year residency rule.

A New Zealander who also qualifies to play for Samoa, Aki signed for Connacht in 2014 and has gone on to become one of the most impactful players in European rugby.

This season, he qualifies to play for Ireland on residency grounds and looks set to go straight into Joe Schmidt's team for the season-opener against the Springboks.

World Rugby have changed their laws around residency, extending the period a player must spend in one country in order to qualify for that country's national team from three to five years. The change kicks in from 2020.

Aki is the latest player to qualify for Ireland under the old laws, following Richardt Strauss, Rodney Ah You, Robbie Diack, Jared Payne, CJ Stander and Nathan White.

And the decision to include him has come in for criticism, with former Ireland lock Neil Francis describing it as "morally wrong".

"It's tough on a player like that, he came over here and played rugby and qualified for Ireland the right way," Murray said.

"I know people have different opinions on that, but singling a player out like that is really unfair. Bundee hasn't done anything wrong.

"We're lucky to have him in our squad, it's unfair for someone to feel that heat off the media when he hasn't done anything wrong."

Ireland coach Simon Easterby confirmed that Jack Conan, Tommy O'Donnell and Dan Leavy sat out training yesterday morning.

All three are extremely doubtful to be involved against South Africa as a result, leaving Peter O'Mahony, Rhys Ruddock, Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander the remaining fit back-rows which simplifies the equation for the coaches as they consider this week's selection.

It appears likely that the Lions trio will start, with Ruddock on the bench as Schmidt puts together an experienced pack.

Behind the scrum there is likely to be more change, with Jacob Stockdale the favourite to start on the wing and Aki almost certain to partner Robbie Henshaw in the centre.

Easterby is expecting him to hit the ground running if selected. "I guess the form and the ability he's shown for Connacht, you guys will have documented that over the last couple of seasons," Easterby said.

"He's abrasive, he's physical. You have to be those couple of things in Test-match rugby these days.

"He has a real good rugby intelligence as well, that's really important at this level and to get on well in this team you have to be not just a good rugby player but know where you need to be and how things work.

"So, it's a combination of things.

"Listen, for anyone who comes into a squad and hasn't got a cap you don't know until you expose them to that.

"We've all been there, been lucky enough to have done it and kick on. You hope that anyone who is exposed to international rugby has the ability from what you've seen at provincial level.

"It's not going to happen straight away, there will be lots of rough edges that need to be smoothed out.

"Across the board, Bundee and one or two others who maybe only have a few caps - we're exposing them to a high level of rugby from what they've had in the summer, what they had at provincial level.

"Hopefully we keep exposing those players and see a real reward at the end of it."

Schmidt names his team for Saturday's clash with the Springboks tomorrow afternoon.

Irish Independent

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