Friday 14 December 2018

'He's on the computers. He's doing everything he can to get up to speed' - Keith Earls on Bundee Aki

Bundee Aki is in line to make his Ireland debut at 27 this weekend if selected alongside his old buddy Robbie Henshaw. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki is in line to make his Ireland debut at 27 this weekend if selected alongside his old buddy Robbie Henshaw. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A new season, and it's the same old slow-burn approach to Test week at Carton House where the routine has changed slightly but life goes on as normal.

Behind the scenes, preparations are well under way for Saturday's opening Test of the season but front of house there's a low-key approach as usual.

A tweak to the schedule meant that manager Paul Dean has been removed from the media schedule this season, meaning there was no member of management available to discuss the biggest game of the season to date. Instead, Keith Earls was sent forth to field questions.

An email informed us all that nobody is injured and the one absentee from yesterday's training was Ulster's Kieran Treadwell, who has been delayed coming back from South Africa.

Over in Stillorgan, Springbok coach Allister Coetzee was in front of the cameras setting the week's agenda, while in Bristol Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland were overseeing a much-hyped England-Wales joint training session.

But despite this being a week in which the union are up against the FAI in a battle for column inches, Joe Schmidt's preferred low-key approach prevails.

Most are used to the head coach's control, but there are a group of players in Carton House adjusting to Camp Schmidt.

One of those is Bundee Aki, who is in line to make his Ireland debut at 27 this weekend if selected alongside his old buddy Robbie Henshaw.

Given Chris Farrell was released to Munster last weekend, it appears to be a straight shoot-out between Stuart McCloskey and Aki for the jersey left vacant by the injured Garry Ringrose and the Connacht star is the early favourite.

There is plenty of noise about the Aucklander's inclusion, but behind the high walls of Ireland's Kildare base he is just another member of the team.

Unlike the other newcomers who are almost fresh out of U-20s, the centre is already an experienced operator with years of Super Rugby action behind him against the best South Africa have to offer.

He's been the western province's talisman for three seasons and has a strong relationship with Henshaw who enjoyed working alongside him for his last two years at the Sportsground.

Whatever one thinks of the residency laws, there is no doubt he will add to Ireland's options.

Aki is a much-loved character who plays with his heart on his sleeve and Earls says he has fitted right in to Camp Schmidt.

"He's keeping the head down. He's putting in a lot of hard work. Obviously, there is going to be a lot of things said and all that (about qualifying on residency)," the experienced Munster man said.

"He's putting in so much work. He's on the computers. He's doing everything he can to get up to speed. It's great having him around.

He's an experienced player. He's won Super Rugby with the Chiefs. He's won a trophy with Connacht. He's been playing unbelievably. He was player of the year in our league last year and he's well enough experienced, so hopefully he'll get his shot.

"There's a lot of competition, it's only good for us."

Aki is a very different player from Jared Payne and Ringrose who have gone before him and his raw power and explosive impact offer so much to Schmidt in attack.

It will be fascinating to see how he fits into the system and whether that system will be adjusted to get the most out of him.

His combination with Henshaw perhaps affords the Leinster man a break from the relentless hard carrying he's been asked to do during the majority of his Ireland career.

Connacht coach Kieran Keane is expecting Aki to line out at inside centre, which would allow Henshaw to operate in the wider channel as he has done for Leinster this season.

"I think he will do well," Keane said of Aki. "He is in great nick and a great frame of mind, (we'll) possibly see him at 12 rather than 13.

"From my perspective, he probably suits that better but we play him at 13 for other reasons."

Around Ireland camp, Aki has been making himself at home.

"He's been himself, which is great, there's no dancing or anything out of him yet," Earls said with a smile.

"He's playing the music in the gym, you know, just the lads in general are trying to make him feel comfortable like any new lad.

"That's what we try and do, we'll try and take the piss out of him a bit but then if you're not being slagged then you know you're in trouble."

That's life in the bubble, where the hard work is being done to ensure Ireland hit the ground running and get this series off to a strong start with victory.

"We're all on the one mission now," Earls said. "To try to get the win over South Africa and hopefully get the three wins in November."

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport