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Aki Targets Further Improvement For Top Of The Table Clash

Aki Targets Further Improvement For Top Of The Table Clash

Bundee Aki gets past his opposite number Pita Ahki during Ireland's 59-16 bonus point win over Tonga in Nantes on Saturday night ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

With five tries in his last three Tests and a Mastercard player-of-the-match award, there is no denying that Bundee Aki looks to be in the form of his life.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup did not go to plan for Ireland or Aki, with two of his appearances in Japan cut short due to a head injury and a red card. That meant he was unavailable for the defeats to the host nation and New Zealand.

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However, buoyed by his strong finish to the both 2022 series win over the All Blacks and this year’s Grand Slam success, the bustling Connacht centre has made a big impact across the opening two rounds of this Rugby World Cup.

Last week, apart from his two tries against Romania, his 191 metres gained set a new Irish World Cup record – beating the previous best of 165, jointly set by Geordan Murphy (2007) and Rob Kearney (2011).

His five line breaks during the 82-8 win were the most by any player in the first round, and while crossing twice during the final quarter of the Tonga match, he emerged again as Ireland’s leading carrier (19) and metre maker (135) on the night.

Mindful that there are tougher challenges ahead, beginning with next Saturday’s clash with South Africa, Aki said: “There were good things in the performance, and a lot of other things we can work on as a team.

“We weren’t as clinical as we wanted to be, a lot of dumb penalties, if you could say, given away. I know we’ll look at it and rectify it.

“I know we got the points we wanted but we’re still not happy with the way we performed. Next week will be an even bigger test for us, and we’ll go out there and give it our best.”

Ireland gave due respect to Tonga by picking one of their strongest available selections, knowing that Toutai Kefu’s side, bolstered by the addition of a handful of former All Blacks, were eyeing up a big scalp.

Aki relished coming up against the ‘Ikale Tahi outfit, especially with two of his former Connacht team-mates, Pita Ahki and Leva Fifita, in their starting XV, along with Malakai Fekitoa and Salesi Piutau who also have experience of playing in both New Zealand and Ireland.

“Full credit to the boys. Huge, huge respect for Tonga. They came out firing. We knew it was going to be a physical match,” acknowledged the 33-year-old, who is the World Cup’s top try scorer so far with four tries.

“I know a lot of these boys, I’ve played with them and against them and I expected nothing less from them. Much respect to them. Hopefully they go out in the next couple of weeks and put everything out there. All the best to them.”

Aki has the distinction of making two Test debuts against South Africa. He memorably won his first Ireland cap at home to the Springboks in November 2017, while his maiden Lions Test appearance came in the 2021 series finale in Cape Town.

Knee injury victim Lukhanyo Am is a big loss to the ‘Boks midfield, but Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel paired up in the centre for their opening World Cup win over Scotland, and speed merchants Canan Moodie and Grant Williams started together against Romania.

Ireland are certainly well-stocked at centre, especially with Robbie Henshaw making a timely return from injury during the 59-16 triumph in Nantes. Stuart McCloskey, who started against South Africa last November, is also pushing hard for selection.

Aki and Garry Ringrose have been the players in possession of the number 12 and 13 jerseys since Ireland kicked off their World Cup campaign, and assistant coach Mike Catt brushed off fears that a grimacing Aki had suffered an injury during the eight-try defeat of Tonga.

“He’s grand is old Bundee. He was a bit sore after the Romania game as well. He was wrapped for two days and then all of a sudden performed like he did again on the weekend,” said Catt.

“He’s getting through a tonne of work and he’s playing exceptionally well. With the amount of hits that he took yesterday I suppose he is going to feel a bit sore but again. We’ll give him time to recover this week for the big battle in Paris.”

Ireland are the team to catch at the top of Pool B following back-to-back bonus point wins. South Africa’s 76-point dismissal of Romania has them just a point behind Andy Farrell’s men, while Scotland, who face Tonga next Sunday, have ground to make up in third place.

Finlay Bealham’s availability for next weekend will be determined in the coming days. The Connacht prop failed to return to the pitch against Tonga following a head injury assessment during the third quarter.

Dan Sheehan and Jack Conan were nursing foot injuries but could both be back in the selection mix. The news on the pair has been positive in recent days, and Catt says that the collective group is in ‘a good place’ ahead of their date with the reigning champions.

If you’d asked us before the competition to have two wins and that many points on the board in a tough group, we would have taken it. We’re in a good place. Injury-wise we’re in a good place.

“Tonga was always going to be a very tough game, a physical game. We’ve come through that relatively injury free which is great. Now it’s about recovery and preparing ourselves for South Africa.”

The 2003 Rugby World Cup winner has been impressed by what he has seen of late from South Africa. They laid down a marker by beating New Zealand 35-7 in their final warm-up fixture, and are yet to concede a try in the pool stages.

Nonetheless, along with the regularity of playing the South African teams in the BKT United Rugby Championship, Ireland have beaten the ‘Boks in their last two meetings, both at the Aviva Stadium, and head to Paris on a record 15-match winning streak,

It all makes for a fascinating contest at the home of French rugby, with former England international Catt adding: “South Africa are playing a great brand of rugby at the moment. There’s a real good mix of their physicality and their directness to their ability to move the ball.

“Having Manie Libbok at 10, Damian Willemse at 15 and Willie le Roux – they’re definitely putting the ball through the hands a little bit more and they’re causing big problems for a lot of teams.

“We’re well aware of it, but still you’ve got to try and stop it. You’re playing against one of the best teams in the world. This is what World Cups are built on.”