Try scorer Bundee Aki paid tribute to the home fans that flocked to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon for Ireland’s comprehensive 56-19 bonus point victory over Italy in the NatWest 6 Nations Championship.
For the third time in the green jersey, Bundee Aki was joined by former Connacht team-mate Robbie Henshaw in Ireland’s midfield. The excellent Henshaw touched down twice prior to his early-second half departure due to a suspected shoulder injury, while Aki also scored his maiden international try.
While he sees his own scoring contribution as a mere bonus in the grand scheme of things, the 27-year-old inside centre was pleased to see a vocal reaction from the 51,700-capacity crowd throughout the course of the game.
“I was just happy I got over the line. To be able to help out the boys and get the score on the board was a bonus. To get the first try for this team is something special. The crowd has always been unbelievable, the crowd has always been loud,” acknowledged Aki.
“They’ve always been behind us, and I think that’s the greatest thing about playing in an Irish jersey. The supporters here are very passionate about their team, and I think that’s one thing we take. They’re the 16th man on the field.”
Aki has completed the full 80 minutes in each of his four Tests to date, with Chris Farrell deputising for Henshaw at outside centre in the GUINNESS Series success against Argentina in November.
Henshaw’s absence for the final 35 minutes against the Azzurri led to a reshuffle in the Irish back-line, and Aki was left impressed by Keith Earls’ seamless move into the 13 channel.
“Earlsy, he slotted in there. He looks like he has played there for a while, and he played really well at 13. He’s done a lot of hard work and you can see with that cover tackle right at the end. I think Earlsy is a world class player. The experience that he has.
“I felt real comfortable with just the way he was playing. That’s the same thing that Robbie did to me. Make me feel comfortable with him on the outside, Johnny (Sexton) on the inside, and it’s the same thing with Earlsy. The amount of caps that he’s had, the amount of games that he’s played at international level. You can only just feed off their energy and feed off their experience.”
With a bonus point already wrapped up by half-time, it was a satisfying day at the office for Joe Schmidt’s side. That said, the concession of three tries in the second half will be a cause for concern within the group, and Aki admitted there are a number of areas they need to work on in the lead up to Wales’ visit to Dublin on Saturday week.
“I think we’re very happy with the results that we’ve got, but as you can see there’s a lot of stuff we need to work on for next week. Our executions, myself included. A lot of simple things. Catching the ball, holding onto the ball and building phases from there. The good thing about it is that we’ve a lot of things to work on and we can re-grow as a team again.”
Offering his own assessment of Aki’s efforts in helping Ireland make it two Six Nations win out of two, head coach Schmidt said: “I think Bundee was probably disappointed with some of his handling at times. He prides himself on looking after the ball and doing it well. He is a creator of play as well as a go-forward player. He did the full gambit today…Bundee keeps growing into his game at the international level, players are getting used to him, and we are keen for that to continue.”
A breakthrough Test try certainly adds another feather to Aki’s cap. Yet, far from viewing this as a sign that he has arrived on the international stage, the 2016 PRO12 title winner accepts that he has a lot to learn about the game at the highest level.
“As you can see in that team, there’s a lot of quality players. You can’t take anything for granted. You’ve just got to make sure you keep your head down and keep going really. Make sure you’re improving and making sure you’re putting your hand up to take that spot again or perform again,” he added.