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Aki at the centre of Irish crowning glory in spite of constant midfield upheaval

 

By Cian Tracey

One by one the centres dropped like flies, and while Bundee Aki would eventually succumb to the same fate in the second half at Twickenham, the Connacht man was the glue that kept Ireland's midfield together across their Grand Slam success.

Before injury curtailed his involvement against England, Aki was in line to become the only player to have played every minute in what was his debut Six Nations, which in itself speaks volumes for how highly he is rated by Joe Schmidt.

To think that Ireland were already without Jared Payne, who has been such a key figure under Schmidt, and then they lost Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell to injury, the depth was well and truly tested.

Over the last five games, Aki has played with four different centre partners, yet each time a new man stepped in, the 27-year-old's performance levels never dipped.

Starting the campaign alongside Henshaw, the pair know each other well from their time at Connacht together but when his tournament was ended by a dislocated shoulder, Keith Earls had to slot in against Italy.

Aki had never played with Earls, before Farrell was called upon against Wales. That was a partnership that flourished last November in the win over Argentina.

However, suffering a season-ending injury in training was a cruel blow for Farrell, but Garry Ringrose's return from his own setback could hardly have been better timed.

Again, Ireland were forced to shuffle their pack, but Aki's constant presence in the centre remained and ultimately was crucial to them winning the Grand Slam.

Appearing on the Left Wing podcast last week, Henshaw was asked about the difficulties in regularly changing centre partners at this level.

"It's very tough - both in attack and defence," he insisted.

"Bundee is always talking to his centre partner, he's always asking questions, he's always saying, 'What can we do better?' He's always pulling you to the laptop to have a look at things. So I'm sure he had the lads' heads wrecked over the last few weeks."

Aki has been on Schmidt's radar since he joined Connacht from the Chiefs back in 2014, and having him in camp last August before he was technically Irish-qualified was a huge help.

Back in November when he made his debut against South Africa, we saw him adjusting to Schmidt's systems, and this spring he has gone from strength to strength.

Undoubtedly, Aki's best moment on the international stage arrived on Saturday when he played such a key role in CJ Stander's try, which may well be the best that Ireland have scored under Schmidt.

We have come to expect Aki to be hugely aggressive in defence but he is a real threat with ball in hand, and also has the subtleties to match.

Schmidt last used this extraordinary strike play off a set-piece when Ireland beat England in Dublin three years ago, and in the time since, he has been waiting for the right moment to unleash it again.

Back in 2015, it was Henshaw who played the role that Aki was asked to do this time. Make no mistake about it, this is a special move that Schmidt has kept up his sleeve and it says a lot about the trust that the Kiwi has in Aki to pull it off.

Tadhg Furlong's handling skills were sublime to create the gap for Aki to hare through. He initially veered and cleverly looked towards Ringrose, who had run a brilliant decoy line off his right, but the move had been practised countless times in Carton House last week, and Aki knew that Stander was the one who was to get the ball.

It's difficult to understate how important the timing of the pass to Stander was. The No.8 didn't have to break stride and from there, he was able to power over.

It was a truly exceptional piece of play and it was no surprise that Aki was at the heart of it.

While that was the standout world-class moment, there have been several others throughout the campaign that hammer home the point that Aki is now fully embedded into Schmidt's masterplan.

Whether it was the loop Ringrose played off him for Jacob Stockdale's second try against Scotland or how he latched onto Conor Murray afterwards to help drive him over the whitewash or the line break he made to set up Earls' try in the Italy clash, the subtleties have not been in short supply.

Aki has been happy to roll up his sleeves and his work around the breakdown has also been exceptional. And that's before you mention the numerous bone-shuddering hits or the two tries he scored against Italy and then in the victory over Wales a fortnight later.

All of this has happened as he has had to readjust to playing alongside four different centres, who are all very much different kind of players.

It's a testament to Aki's quality. Not bad for his first Six Nations.

Bundee Aki’s centre partners

France: Robbie Henshaw

Italy: Henshaw and Keith Earls

Wales: Chris Farrell

Scotland: Garry Ringrose

England: Garry Ringrose

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