Thursday 22 February 2018

Comment - Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale shine while Bundee comes through other side of hellish week

Jack O'Toole

“It’s been a hell of a journey,” Bundee Aki said of his Ireland debut on Saturday.

The debutant’s 15 tackles from the inside centre spot set a forceful tone in the Irish midfield as Joe Schmidt's side bullied their way to a 35-point win over a dreadful Springboks outfit at the Aviva Stadium.

The Connacht centre threw himself at anything and everything that moved in a dark green jersey, and his first hit on Springboks prop Coenie Oosthuizen, a shuddering thump to the mid-section, was the physical and emotional release from an unusually intense week of scrutiny.

Aki proceeded to scream and clap his hands following the tackle that ultimately ended Oosthuizen’s evening then and there. He’d been waiting for this moment for the better part of two weeks, if not the best part of three years.

At one point in the pre-match build up during the week, an IRFU communications officer literally had to remind sections of the media to ask Schmidt questions that pertained to the South African game and not to Aki’s selection.

This was already after Schmidt was grilled on Aki’s place in the side at the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland dinner a week earlier.

Why the extra attention for Aki?

I sat in the stands at the Aviva three years ago when Jared Payne made his Ireland debut against South Africa.

There was nowhere near the same amount of scrutiny for the Ulster utility’s selection, and this was before World Rugby had changed their eligibility requirements for residency qualified players from three to five years.

CJ Stander’s debut was analysed more than Payne’s first game in green, but neither introduction was scrutinised as heavily as Aki’s.

Why?

Was it because Jared Payne was born in Tauranga and Aki is from Auckland? Was it the fact that Aki played for Counties Manukau and Payne played for Northland?

Was it a Connacht v Ulster thing? Was it the accumulation of players that qualified under the residency rule and Aki was the straw that broke the disgruntled columnist’s back? Was it because Aki’s selection coincided with Simon Zebo’s omission?

Was there any chance at all that the scrutiny stemmed from a much darker and much more sinister place? A place that may have existed but is uncomfortable for some to admit.

I’m not a rugby writer, I just write about rugby.

I don’t attend the dinners or the press conferences, but those who do and those that have the privilege of working in the media ought to reflect on this week and their line of questioning, especially considering the residency rule was reformed in May.

You shouldn't paint all of the media with one brush, but maybe we should have painted all of the residency rule players with a single stroke. It’s only fair.

However, when Aki and his teammates didn’t have to field questions about his selection, they mercilessly pummeled one of the worst South African sides ever to come to Dublin.

Ireland were brilliant, their linespeed was exceptional, their work at the breakdown was phenomenal, and their scrum was near perfect, but amidst all the chatter concerning residency rule players last week, it was the work of two homegrown players that provided the biggest cause for optimism as we edge closer towards Japan in 2019.

Dublin , Ireland - 11 November 2017; Jacob Stockdale of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Dublin , Ireland - 11 November 2017; Jacob Stockdale of Ireland during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

One of the hallmarks of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland tenure has been his ability to replace the loss of a great player with the promotion of another.

Leo Cullen used to replace the likes of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan, now James Ryan is coming on for Iain Henderson.

Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll were replaced in a matter of years by Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.

Jack McGrath ousted Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong slipped straight in for Mike Ross, and with Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble’s international careers all but over, and Keith Earls out with a hamstring tear, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway have now climbed to the forefront of Schmidt’s plans after waiting patiently on the wings.

Conway and Stockdale, a potential buddy cop combo in a different life, where exceptional on Saturday.

Donal Lenihan may have awarded Johnny Sexton the man of the match award, a shout that even Sexton seemed to be surprised by when they panned to him on the big screen, but the stars against the Springboks were undoubtedly Conway and Stockdale.

Joey Carbery, Sean O'Brien, Bundee Aki and Andrew Conway congratulate Jacob Stockdale of Ireland after scoring his side's fourth try during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Joey Carbery, Sean O'Brien, Bundee Aki and Andrew Conway congratulate Jacob Stockdale of Ireland after scoring his side's fourth try during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Matt Browne/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Two tries between them, 171 metres, six linebreaks, six beaten defenders, one try assist and zero consideration for any of the other challengers to their starting berths going forward.

But it wasn’t just the quantifiable statistics that impressed, the best part of their performance had nothing to do with analytics and everything to do with the parts of the game that simply require intelligence and heart.

Stockdale’s linespeed to ultimately force a knock on from Siya Kolisi. Conway sprinting 30 metres to chase down his own kick and hurl his body towards a charge down on Elton Jantjies.

Stockdale coming off his wing to look for work, hovering around the midfield, diving on loose balls and breaking the line and firing accurate left handed passes at full tilt.

Conway pinning the ears, accelerating and looking to beat defenders. In an era of disciplined positioning and ball retention, it still excites to watch a winger have a go.

However, the finest moment for the pair, and of Ireland’s victory, was undoubtedly the final try.

For those that become queasy and nauseous when they hear ‘Ireland’ and ‘World Cup quarter-final’ mentioned in the same sentence, maybe this passage of play can be a source of optimism as we hone in on Japan.

Substitute fly-half Joey Carbery finds Darren Sweetnam with a crosskick and the Munster winger saves the ball from rolling into touch and he fights his way forward until reinforcements arrive.

Kieran Marmion then fires the ball to James Ryan who barrels his way forward. A quick recycle sees Dave Kilcoyne slip the ball to Joey Carbery, who then spins it wide to Robbie Henshaw.

The Leinster centre identifies the space outside of him and he picks out Conway who has a three-on-one overlap.

Conway then straightens and fires the ball to Stockdale who gallops his way over the tryline for a thoroughly deserved score.

There will come a time in Ireland when the national rugby team will no longer be able to realistically rely on the CJ Stander’s, the Bundee Aki’s and the Jared Payne’s of this world, but if the Joey Carbery’s can continue to pick out the Darren Sweetnam’s with crosskicks and the Robbie Henshaw’s with passes.

And the Robbie Henshaw’s can continue to find the Andrew Conway’s and the Jacob Stockdale’s in space, then Irish Rugby should do just fine.

But what would we talk about then?

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