'That's all I've always wanted, to do right by the team' - Redefined role now playing to Bundee Aki’s strengths

Influential figure Bundee Aki scoring against Wales. Photo: Sportsfile

Cian Tracey

One of the most noticeable aspects of Ireland’s new attacking system is how Bundee Aki is no longer merely used as a one-dimensional crash-ball merchant.

Of course, Aki’s power is still used to get Ireland over the gain-line, but he is now given licence to be more of a distributor, which was evidenced by the perfectly timed pass he threw off his left for Garry Ringrose to score the bonus-point try in last weekend’s win over Wales.

That added threat makes Aki even more of a nightmare for opposition teams to defend against, which in turn means Ireland are less predictable in attack.

In the past, even if he hasn’t regularly showcased his passing ability, which more times than not was because he was playing a particular role, Aki has always been comfortable on the ball.

The 31-year-old is, however, well aware of some of the stick he has been on the receiving end of.

“I think I get a lot of criticism for not passing but that’s just how it is,” the centre says.

“It’s always been there. Just doing the right thing for the team – that’s all I’ve always wanted to do, do right by the team.”

“I wouldn’t say (it’s) frustrating, now. It’s all good. That’s their opinion not mine.

“I love both styles of rugby and I can do a bit of both, so I don’t really mind what my role is for the team. I will do what I need to do for the team.”

It says a lot about Aki’s impressive form that Ireland’s best player last year, Robbie Henshaw, still can’t get into the team, and has to make do with a place on the bench.

Aki has become a hugely influential figure for Andy Farrell, and while he might play down his role in Paris tomorrow, there is no doubt that there is an even greater onus on the Connacht man to help Joey Carbery through what will be the biggest test of his career.

Much has been made of Eddie Jones’ decision not to have a powerful No 12 playing outside Marcus Smith, and although Carbery is far more experienced than England’s mercurial out-half, he will certainly be helped by having someone of Aki’s strength alongside him.

Just as Farrell insisted it would be business as usual despite Johnny Sexton’s enforced injury absence, Aki echoed his head coach’s sentiment. “Nothing’s changed,” Aki said.

“Obviously Johnny is a big leader in our group and having him in there, travelling with us, it will be good for us to have him around. “Training went very well with Joey and Jack (Carty), it was seamless. We’re looking forward to playing with those two boys and hopefully we can build a little bit more depth into our team and go from there.

“We take full confidence off our training. Joey has evolved, he obviously knows what he’s doing. I’m confident we will play well together, to be honest.

“Joey is well-equipped to run games. He just does his thing and we follow him and do what we are supposed to do.

“It just shows the resilience of Joey and obviously he’s had a few setbacks, it just shows how tough mentally he is and I know how excited he is to get this start. He loves being involved.

“There is a lot of ownership just to be able to express ourselves, playing what we see but also doing the right thing by making sure we earn the right to be able to play that type of game.

“We obviously can’t just throw the ball around and expect to score tries like that. We obviously have to be able to do the hard work first to get the opportunity to play that way.”

Aki will come up against Yoram Moefana, who starts his first Six Nations game, having impressed off the bench in last week’s win over Italy.

For all that France will look to unsettle Carbery, Aki must target Moefana’s relative inexperience in midfield.

Fuelled by the disappointment of Ireland’s last trip to Paris in 2020, Aki is ready to lay down a marker.

“I obviously want to improve my game and the boys in the front of the pack have been playing very well,” he adds. “It’s going to be a tough game this week, it’s going to be a different story anyway.

“Obviously that game (2020) we were disappointed as a team and as a group.

“Definitely, for myself personally, it’s a game that I get nightmares of, but sure look, the sun always rises, the sun is out today, so we will see what happens this weekend.

“Hopefully we can get a better performance than what we did the last time we were here.”