Jonathan Bradley: Referee had no choice over Bundee Aki's red card as Ireland centre's World Cup looks to be over after Samoa win
There was a time against Samoa when things were unfolding just about as well as could have been expected for Joe Schmidt.
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Long before setting off for Japan, the Kiwi's dream scenario would always have been to have this game in Fukuoka as little more than a glorified dead-rubber. Having looked perturbed by the Hakatanomori Stadium pitch and agitated by the notion that Typhoon Hagibis left other contenders with a down week before the quarter-finals in the build up, he'll have rued how much was still riding on this clash all the more as kick-off approached.
But, under the circumstances, all was going to the revised plan in the opening exchanges.
As has become a pattern at this tournament, his side started quickly and scored two fast tries. Unlike against Japan and Russia in their previous two games, a third was to follow hot on its heels. Players looked sharp with Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray reunited for a first time since the 50th minute of this tournament against Scotland. Even for Schmidt, thoughts will have been close to drifting to the quarter-finals as the half hour mark approached.
Then, abruptly, came Bundee Aki's red card.
On what was set to be a special day for the Connacht man and his Samoan family, the centre didn't get low enough as he went to tackle Ulupano Seuteni and was duly shown a red card by referee Nic Berry. Having went to the Samoan ten to apologise seconds before the card, Aki was visibly devastated by the dismissal, Robbie Henshaw consoling him as he left the pitch.
If fans around the press box were anything to go by few in the stadium agreed, one Samoan yelling 'that's how we play the game' while a pair of Ireland supporters rather dramatically serenaded Berry to a Monty Python-inspired 'shame, shame.'
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In reality, Berry had little choice. There was no malice from Aki but the ref was clear when showing Ireland's first ever World Cup red.
"Direct contact to head with high degree of force," said the Australian. "I'm not seeing enough to mitigate it down."
In the instance of Seilala Lam's earlier yellow, it was clearly visible that Jacob Stockdale had dramatically lowered just prior to contact being made with his jaw. As Berry made clear, the replay of Aki's tackle offered no such obvious out for the officials. While Ireland remained in the ascendancy even with 14-men, bagging the all-important bonus point before halftime and ultimately racking up 47 points, for one of their number the World Cup looks likely to be over.
Four years ago the never-ending wait for Sean O'Brien's eventual ban provided intrigue in the week leading into the quarter-finals, but it would seem surprising given what's gone before in this tournament if Aki is available in the next three weeks. Schmidt will have one less selection decision to make.
As Henshaw made his first appearance of the tournament in the game after his hamstring complaint, Garry Ringrose was having a well-deserved rest, Ireland's best player to date at this World Cup having racked up a heavy workload across the first three games.
Aki's red continues the confounding trend of Ireland's three top centres rarely having been available at the same time.
While the 2018 tour to Australia proved a rare exception, and February's Six Nations loss to England brought an ill-fated stint at full-back from Henshaw, Schmidt will likely now leave his role as head coach without us ever knowing just who his preferred midfield partnership was to be.
Whether against the All Blacks or the Springboks, it'll now be Ringrose and Henshaw for the last eight.
Belfast Telegraph Digital