Saturday 21 September 2019

Henderson slams 'sly' Kiwi criticism of Aki as he savours piece of history

Iain Henderson is out for up to 12 weeks
Iain Henderson is out for up to 12 weeks

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Iain Henderson has defended Bundee Aki's right to play for Ireland and hailed his influence in the squad after the New Zealand-born centre came in for sustained criticism last week ahead of his first outing against the All Blacks.

Pressure was heaped on the Connacht man by elements of the New Zealand media and by assistant coach Ian Foster ahead of the win.

One 'New Zealand Herald' article went as far as describing Aki and his fellow Kiwis who go on to represent rival nations as "no longer viewed as happy-go-lucky opportunists, but men who have stabbed their homeland in the back".

Aki kept his counsel and delivered a trademark performance, thundering into contact over the course of an unforgiving 80 minutes.

After being stared down by several opponents, some of whom are former team-mates, during the haka, the 28-year-old celebrated wildly at the end of a famous win and led the team in their celebration routine.

"I get on really well with Bundee, I have played against him a good number of times for Ulster against Connacht, and I always respected him," the Ulster lock explained.

"I thought he was an incredibly tough player to play against. He was incredibly physical.

"Over the last number of years he has been getting better and better, especially because he has been down in national camp.

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"He has just been an addition to the squad, and for coming here to play for the number of years to then get qualified, it takes an awful lot for someone to say, 'right, well that is the pathway I am going to choose' with so many years of work ahead of you and the expectation that puts on you.

"You're essentially saying 'in three years' time I'm still going to be performing the way I am now, if not better, to play international rugby, to try and face teams like the All Blacks'. That takes a huge amount of confidence and work.

"For players to do that, for me, I think it's incredible to see them coming into fruition.

"To call him a back-stabber that's probably a bit sly, if I'm being honest.

"The amount of work he has put in, in Connacht and in Ireland, I think he's completely justified to be wearing the green jersey.

"It's the same in training. He's an excellent lad about the place too and just adds to the whole ethos.

"To go back to what I said earlier about how difficult it would be to write that chapter of your life, without ever having done it, to push forward and then follow through with it, is an incredible achievement."

As for the celebration, Henderson said there is no particular meaning to the Aki-led huddle.

"It's just like an in-house thing, kind of like a team bonding we kind of get going and he's right in the middle of it," the Ulster man said.

"He (Aki) is good craic. He's in the centre of all the banter that we have.

"In that celebration, we would do it occasionally after training, we do it after good games we've won and he leads it. He kind of comes up with these actions and clapping and double clapping, and bits and pieces he pulls out of his hat.

"It gets everyone in a good mood after a game, after a good training session. Essentially it's just a bit of fun and Bundee leads that.

"And that just paints a bit of a picture as to the character he is and then adding enjoyment to what can be a very tough and stressful role at some stages."

Henderson came off the bench to play a part in the victory having missed the win in Chicago through injury and narrowly missing out on selection for last year's Lions win.

"It was definitely way, way up there," he said of the atmosphere.

"I felt it and I was able to experience it without having to worry too much about the game whenever I was on the bench. It was a phenomenal atmosphere without ever having to get onto the pitch.

"Having all the fan-base behind you was incredible. The buzz in the general area before the game... then to come out for the haka as well, it was phenomenal, it was just kind of building all day and then throughout the day."

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