Sunday 18 August 2019

Joe Schmidt's bubble burst as he feels the Bundee Aki heat

Bundee Aki during Ireland squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki during Ireland squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki in relaxed mood as they go through their stretches during Ireland’s training at Carton House yesterday. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In the end, the man from the IRFU decided he had to step in and try and move the topic on to tomorrow's game.

Head coach Joe Schmidt is a very capable media operator, but his mood had darkened after a flurry of queries about the residency laws at yesterday's team announcement in which he had picked Bundee Aki for the first time.

Within the high walls of Carton House, they claim they are able to block out the 'Prime Time' debates and media chatter.

Yet in one breath, Schmidt says he hasn't been tuning into the debate about Aki. In the next, he specifically references a piece he liked from that morning's media briefing.

Outside the camp, the pre-match build-up has been dominated by talk of the Aucklander and yesterday's press conference saw the bubble penetrated as the questions rained in. Eventually, the press officer saw fit to intervene with a reminder that we were here to talk about the match.

"I just follow the rules and try to prepare the team," the head coach said.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt.

"Once he gets on to the pitch and the game is done, I'm really hopeful that for his sake and for the team's sake, really, that he has a scorching game and hopefully that will appease some of the doubters. I know there are an incredible amount of people who are really positive about his involvement."


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Few are doubting Aki's ability, nor do they question the inclusion of CJ Stander on playing merits alone.

Perhaps Schmidt is right and a big display will put a full stop on the discussion, but it is more likely that until the three-year residency period is extended to five the conversation will continue.

The IRFU may not like it, but some remain uncomfortable with the targeting of promising players from Super Rugby who are not in the frame for their national teams and can be tempted to move across the world by a big contract and the prospect of playing Test rugby after three seasons.

Ireland are far from the only team to exploit the regulation - all the Six Nations sides have fielded overseas signings in recent campaigns.

The three years will be extended to five from 2020 and Schmidt suggested that the change was driven by countries with their own vested interest in stopping the freedom of movement rather than some altruistic vision.

He didn't name him, but clearly he had World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot in mind.

"You could create a narrative around that (change) but I don't think it's valid because some of the people who really drove that were some of the people (from countries where) no one was really going there to become involved in their national team," he said.

"Everyone has a vested interest in what they do. It's a little bit like that in what we're seeing in other aspects of bidding wars and things at the moment, in that people who have a vested interest, they try to get a critical mass that will support them and change things.

"Inevitably, there's a degree of political involvement in sport."

Aki is the seventh 'project player' to receive his first cap on Schmidt's watch, the eighth since Richardt Strauss faced his home country in 2012.

Robbie Diack, Rodney Ah You, Jared Payne, Nathan White and CJ Stander have followed. Of the eight, only Payne and Stander have been regulars in the team and both have gone through their periods of public scrutiny.

The coach doesn't have an opinion on the rule, but is happy playing within its parameters.

"Sometimes where you're born is less relevant than where you're invested over the last period of time," he said.

"I think Bundee has invested incredibly well in the west. They have benefited from his commitment, his ability and his durability."

Certainly, the players are rallying around their new team-mate, with Peter O'Mahony calling out media commentators who have questioned Aki's selection.

"I've been lucky enough to play alongside some super players that have benefited from that rule," he said.

"Bundee, or any of the lads, have done nothing wrong. I can't understand why there was such a focus on him. I didn't think it was very impressive from a media point of view, to be honest. It's water off a duck's back."

After his media officer came to the rescue, Schmidt did field a couple of queries about the match itself.

Facing a Springbok side that closely mirrors the one that pushed New Zealand close in Cape Town last month is a tough challenge.

Allister Coetzee has strengthened his front-row with the return of Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira and Coenie Oosthuizen and Damian de Allende is back in the centre for Jan Serfontein.

Ireland, meanwhile, must cope without Keith Earls due to a hamstring problem, while Jack McGrath is left out of the 23 after missing training last week with a hip issue. If pushed, he could have played but the coach has gone for Cian Healy to start with Dave Kilcoyne in reserve.

Schmidt defended Rob Kearney's record after picking his regular full-back in between inexperienced wingers Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale, claiming that the win over New Zealand last season would not have happened but for the much-maligned Louthman's contribution.

Darren Sweetnam and James Ryan are intriguing bench selections, while South African-born hooker Rob Herring - who qualifies through an Irish grandparent, could win his second cap against his home country.

Schmidt concluded his press briefing with a neat side-step of Coetzee's 'All Blacks of Europe' tag.

"If you don't have an eye on the Springboks, you would be crazy. We certainly have had a good look at what they are doing," he said.

"You've got to hugely respect what they did in their last Test match.

"We've been watching them and we have the utmost respect for them. But we haven't been reading or listening to too much stuff."

And with that, it was back into the safety of the bubble.

IRELAND: R Kearney; A Conway, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong, I Henderson, D Toner, P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, CJ Stander. Replacements: R Herring, D Kilcoyne, John Ryan, James Ryan, R Ruddock; K Marmion, J Carbery, D Sweetnam.

SOUTH AFRICA: A Coetzee; D Leyds, J Kriel, D de Allende, C Skosan; E Jantjies, R Cronje; T Mtawarira, M Marx, C Oosthuizen, E Etzebeth (capt), L de Jager, S Kolisi, PS du Toit, F Louw. Replacements: B Mbonambi, S Kitshoff, W Louw, F Mostert, U Cassiem; R Paige, H Pollard, F Venter.

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