Saturday 24 August 2019

Neil Francis: Look behind Bundee - Panto spotlight against Springboks eclipses young stars

Bundee Aki (centre) lines up alongside Robbie Henshaw (left) and James Ryan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki (centre) lines up alongside Robbie Henshaw (left) and James Ryan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The panto season approaches and I have been inundated with work offers. So many roles, so much malfeasance to throw about. I can play anyone - Gaston, Jafar, Captain Hook, Cruella…

If you want some 'boo hiss' or 'look out, Frano is behind you', give me a call - all villain needs are catered for.

In the press room of the Aviva I chanced upon one person who foretold of dire consequences for me.

"You know what is going to happen, don't you?"

"Enlighten me!"

"Bundee is going to score a hat-trick today."

"I hope he does, the team may need it."

He didn't and the team didn't either.

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It was like an episode from 'The Simpsons' - Bundee was everywhere before, during and after the match.

The team announcer called out the starting XV. At number 12 - a slightly different intonation and a pause - Bundeeeeee Akiiiiiiiiiii - the biggest cheer of the day.

Michael D goes down the line and the handshake takes a bit longer than anyone else's.

The anthem starts and the camera pans in on Bundee's face.

He is not signing the anthem - but hold on, there are a lot of them not singing the anthem - even fellas who know how to sing it.

Boo hiss, I'm not singing the anthem. 'Boo hiss, down with Frano. Why isn't Frano singing the anthem?' Because he is too busy looking to see if Bundee is singing it.


'Ireland's Call' is played and all of the players sing it - hurrah!

The match starts and Coenie Oosthuizen gets barrelled by Bundee in the first bit of serious contact. Bravo! Bravo!

The South African is carried off on a stretcher, not so good.

The match ends and South Africa are emasculated. I do my analysis and as I walk home the catering vans outside are selling Bundee Burgers and the pubs are selling Aki Lager.

At the post-match press conference, which I could not attend, Joe Schmidt says Bundee had a great game.

I am not sure whether he was asked or whether he volunteered it. Empty rhetoric really when Ireland beat South Africa 38-3.

It means that nobody played badly and all 23 played with great proficiency. Why go out of your way to emphasise that one player had a great game? Because of the pantomime that took place in the lead-up.

What about a mention for the Irish blokes also playing for Ireland? Maybe a bit of balance might have been appropriate.

Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway had been capped before Saturday's game but this was a big Test against a rugby super-power.

The pair acquitted themselves really well which was an endorsement for our academies and schools systems.

James Ryan, just 21, comes off the bench and is thrown in at the deep end against a powerful but under-performing Springbok pack.

It was a short cameo but everything he did smacked of the beginning of a 100-Test cap career. Born in Dublin, fresh off the conveyor belt, a triumph of our system and underage game.

Darren Sweetnam was on the pitch a short time only - maybe not even long enough to adjust to the pace - when he called for a cross-field kick from Joey Carbery.

Even the way that the ball was made to skid on the turf, it was like a gentle 58-degree loft wedge with some check on it.

The pitch and the ball were wet and while it would have been easier to knock the ball on when he bent down to gather it at pace - he made sure to collect it cleanly.

He also did very well to stay on the right side of the touchline and hold on until the cavalry came.

They arrived just in time and Stockdale scored on the opposite wing. A cherry on top of the cream on top of the cake.

Sweetnam, born in Cork and stolen from the GAA. The fact that he played for Munster at schools, U-18, U-19 and U-20 levels and for Ireland U-20s, his arrival may not be strictly traditional but there's nothing wrong with a bit of GAA cross-pollination.

The match was in the bag but what a piece of skill. First cap and a big day for him - did he get a mention?

Rob Herring got over the line for Ireland's third try on the back of a well-formed and dynamic maul.

At that stage South Africa were not even in the mood to take it down illegally.

Herring was born in Cape Town. He was reared and educated there. He has been with Ulster for several seasons now and his South African girlfriend lives with him in Belfast.

His family came over and watched him play against the country they live and were born in.

Herring's grandfather on his mother's side is Irish and so as part of our diaspora he has as much right as the rest of us to play for the country.

On another matter of eligibility - the back-three was an area that I was unsure of in the lead-up the match.

It's probably not a coincidence that Joe pulled three full-backs into his back-three.

We have so many players who are converted wingers you would wonder do we have any natural wingers at all, or do we need them?

Not one person mentioned Simon Zebo's absence. It was as if he never played.

Our system works though and it compensates for departures whether for injury, retirement or foreign shores.

It is cruel that Zebo is gone. I am not sure where he watched the match but to miss out on a 38-3 drubbing of the Springboks at home - there's no way that would not pull at the heart strings.

A likely November clean sweep looms now.

Then we have a huge game against the French in Paris on February 3, and if Ireland win that game they've home games against Italy, Wales and Scotland before a possible Grand Slam decider against England at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day.

St Patrick, I believe, is the patron saint of Ireland. No matter who you are as a rugby person the prospect of being involved in that scrap is just irresistible.

Zebo will watch as possibly two players who regularly lose out on selection to him when he plays for Munster will be in the mix.

You may or may not like them - but these are the rules. Boo hiss!

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