Bundee Aki named in Ireland team to face South Africa but Keith Earls misses out
Bundee Aki will start for Ireland in his much-discussed debut against South Africa at The Aviva Stadium on Saturday (KO 5.30).
The Auckland-born, Ireland-qualified centre will man the inside centre berth as Robbie Henshaw moves to thirteen.
The exciting Jacob Stockdale and the maturing Andrew Conway have earned the right to the wing slots in light of Keith Earls pulling out with a hamstring strain that could rule him out for the month, as revealed by Ruaidhri O'Connor in this morning's Irish Independent.
Loose-head Cian Healy is back in the number one shirt he owned for four seasons before successive ankle, hamstring and neck injuries took him out of the game for long stretches.
Coming back to his best, the 30-year-old has been given the nod ahead of Dave Kilcoyne with Jack McGrath missing out completely, partly due to not training last week.
Other than that, Ireland's backbone is a strong and straight one with Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton the fulcrum half-back partnership.
Further out the back, the iron-clad reliability of Rob Kearney, when fit, trojan work of centre Henshaw make them automatic at the moment, despite the improvement of Joey Carbery, listed among the replacements.
Captain Rory Best and tight-head Tadhg Furlong, described as the best in Europe by Tendai 'The Beast' Mtawarira this week, second row Iain Henderson and flanker Sean O'Brien are lockdowns in their positions.
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Once Jack Conan, Dan Leavy and Tommy O’Donnell were ruled out, the back row picked itself with Peter O'Mahony, O'Brien and CJ Stander relying on Rhys Ruddock as back-up from the bench.
It is as interesting to note how James Ryan will appear off the bench, despite just three starts from his five Leinster caps and two for Ireland during the summer.
There is good news there too for wing Darren Sweetnam and hooker Rob Herring.
Head coach Joe Schmidt confirmed Earls' hamstring problem, and admitted the Munster stalwart could miss the entire three-match autumn series.
"Keith picked up the injury on Tuesday, and it was a surprise to him and us," said Schmidt.
"It's a hamstring injury, and I think it's going to make it certainly a struggle for next week, and potentially the week after.
"So he will be a doubt for the series at this point.
"We're disappointed and so is he; he was sensational for us in Japan in the summer.
"Not only his on-field actions but the way he led the young players, that was another role he had fully embraced in this camp.
"He's the consummate professional, a class player, that rapid acceleration.
"But what a fantastic chance for Andrew Conway and Darren Sweetnam."
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.
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