Schmidt strongly defends Bundee Aki’s right to play for Ireland

JOE SCHMIDT HAS issued a strong defence of Bundee Aki’s right to represent Ireland amid the extra attention the Connacht centre is receiving from the All Blacks camp this week.

Auckland-born Aki will face the country of his birth for the first time at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, after being named in Schmidt’s starting XV for the visit of the world champions to Dublin.

Schmidt speaking at this afternoon’s press conference. Source: Patrick McCormack/INPHO

The 28-year-old, a product of the Kiwi system before his move to Galway in 2014, has been the subject of criticism in the New Zealand media this week, while All Blacks assistant Ian Foster ramped up the mind games on Tuesday. 

In his briefing with the media in Dublin, Foster quipped: ”He had a few years in the Chiefs, played really, really well. But he’s been over here a while now. I mean you have moulded him into an Irish man. He looks like an Irish man now doesn’t he?”

Aki, who qualified to represent Ireland through the three-year residency rule, made his international debut in last year’s November window and played an integral part in the Grand Slam success.

He will win his 12th cap against Steve Hansen’s side on Saturday, as the top two ranked teams in the world go head-to-head in a much-anticipated showdown, and Schmidt insisted Aki has long proved where his loyalties lie.

“I think Bundee has probably demonstrated through the last year, he made his debut against South Africa last year in this particular section of the year. And I think he won personality of the year.

“That’s the nature of Bundee and his popularity. Because everybody knows he’s going to give 100%.

“It’s like asking was Jerome Kaino 100% ready to play for the All Blacks, because he was born in a foreign country. Or Chris Masoe, or Joe Rokocoko, or any of those guys.

“So having coached all those guys, they were very ready to play for the All Blacks. Bundee Aki is very ready to play for us in this weekend’s fixture.”

In addition, Schmidt was asked if he felt there was bad blood between the two camps following the ‘over the edge’ — to quote Johnny Sexton from earlier in the week — last meeting between the sides in Dublin in November 2016.

“No, I think people can make their own minds up about those,” he continued. “I know the feedback we got was there were some that were unnecessary.

“The were some decisions made by the referee that day that befuddled everybody. I don’t think there’s any confusion with that.

“But at the same time, we’ve got to get out there and give as good as we get. And that’s what will make it a fairly spiky contest this weekend I would think.”

Schmidt has made four changes to a largely predictable starting XV for the third, and marquee, game of the November series as Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Devin Toner and Dan Leavy are all named to start.  

Aki starts in Ireland’s midfield this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On the back of last weekend’s win over Argentina, Ireland are bidding to extend their record home run to 11 wins and inflict a first defeat on European soil in six years for the All Blacks.

When asked if his side are in good health at this juncture of the World Cup cycle, Schmidt insisted his focus remains on the present: “World Cup cycle is a completely nebulous term to us.

“It’s one of the more irrelevant terms. People talk externally about World Cup cycle: we speak about a circadian rhythm day to day. So our cycle is a 24-hour one, a weekly one.

“We might have as a coaching staff an eye for the future. But with the players they are definitely week to week focused.

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“And so I think it’s really hard to make comparisons. We’ve got a few guys injured obviously, guys like Sean O’Brien, injured last week, Robbie Henshaw pulled out just before kick-off last week, Conor Murray, who is making really good progress.

“But at the same time we focus on what a fantastic opportunity for Kieran Marmion, Dan Leavy to step up. Josh van der Flier, in the two Tests last time, in Chicago he came on early for Jordi Murphy and came on for CJ Stander here. He played a couple of cracking games.

Schmidt did, however, admit it would be a huge achievement to beat the All Blacks on Saturday. 

“Look, it’s always an achievement to beat the All Blacks, that’s why we limit ourselves to just once every 115 years,” he smiled. “Because we don’t want to get carried away with things.

“And it would be a huge feather in these players’ cap if they could topple them on Saturday. But it’s not something you can really prepare for. You can’t prepare for a result, you can only really prepare for a performance.

“So we have to get as many of those elements of performance right to get any sort of chance. And then if we’re a chance, you’d love to see it go down to the wire and for us to get our noses in front.” 

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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