Saturday 24 August 2019

Comment: You would hope that how Bundee Aki looks isn't one of the reasons why his debut is so controversial

9 November 2017; Bundee Aki during Ireland squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
9 November 2017; Bundee Aki during Ireland squad training at Carton House in Maynooth, Kildare. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

After spending three seasons in Ireland, a Kiwi centre prepares to make his international debut in the first November test against South Africa.

There's nothing new in this storyline. In fact, like a lot of sequels, it has been almost exactly three years since Irish fans first witnessed this particular residency rule plot unfold at the Aviva Stadium.

In November 2014, Jared Payne was almost universally welcomed into the fold at number 13 amidst an atmosphere of post-BOD angst. There were a few dissenting voices, sure, but the volume was close to mute compared to the cacophony of noise that has reverberated around Irish rugby since it became clear that Bundee Aki would join Payne as part of the nationalised overseas contingent this autumn.

CJ Stander's first cap against Wales in the 2016 Six Nations wasn't merely welcomed, but celebrated - he knows the words to Amhran Na bhFiann! He carries the ball 257 times per game!

Those players, and Stander in particular, quickly became fan favourites.

Without having the resources to conduct a Red C poll of Irish rugby fans to ascertain their true feelings on Joe Schmidt's decision to pick Aki, it is difficult to make a definitive statement on whether attitudes have become more entrenched on the issue since Stander's debut, but here it goes:

This current case has generated, if not far more, then certainly far louder comment than on any of the players that preceded Aki.

Sure, Paul Kimmage wrote and spoke at the start of 2017 about how he was uncomfortable with players like Stander representing Ireland, but that was long after Payne and the South African made their international debuts.

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This isn't a piece about whether Ireland should be capping project players or not, rather: why has the prospect of Aki wearing an Ireland jersey for the first time stirred up stronger feelings than the other two high profile imports?

Maybe it is just a byproduct of 2017, a year where society is flirting with peak polarisation and discourse has turned from discussion to diatribe.

Twitter, in particular, has made every media opinion more amplified and scrutinised, with those dissecting it online enjoying a platform to hit back. 

Or is the reason for increased opposition to the residency rule that Ireland was more or less called out on a worldwide stage for exploiting it? World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot led the charge to extend the requirements to five years, with many citing Ireland as evidence for why the longer time frame was necessary in order to maintain some semblance of international rugby's tradition.

Some people have voiced opposition to Aki on the grounds that Irish rugby has a deep roster of centres. A fair point, but there was minimal objection in February 2016 when Stander muscled his way in amongst some of the Irish best talent in the back row.

Or perhaps Aki is just one project player too many - that after Richardt Strauss, and Stander and Payne and the rest, people finally feel that Irish rugby has crossed an imaginary line - that the team has gone from trying to pull level with countries who have vastly larger talent pools, to trying to exploit the system to gain an unethical advantage.

But if it was Connacht hooker Tom McCartney - another New Zealander who is now Irish qualified - lining out this weekend instead of Aki, would there have been a similarly prominent debate in the build-up to the game?

You would hope so.

Many people criticising Aki's selection have said that it isn't about him, it is about the rule, and again, you would hope that is true.

Put bluntly: you would hope that how Bundee Aki looks isn't one of the reasons his Irish cap has been more hotly debated than Jared Payne or CJ Stander's. You would hope that people don't feel - subconsciously or otherwise - that it is exploiting the rules a bit too much to claim a player of Polynesian descent as one of our own, rather than one who is white.

There is no doubt that Aki can add as much value as any project player that has come before him, and a Man of the Match performance this Saturday - and a few bars of the national anthem along with it - will probably win over many supporters who have yet to pick a side in the debate.

Why Aki's inclusion has generated so much noise is a question without a definitive answer, but let's keep an eye out to see how Jean Kleyn or James Lowe are received if they ever pull on the green jersey.

That could shed some light on why the debate about Bundee Aki's inclusion was so noisy in the first place.

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