Bundee Aki hailed the collective belief of the Ireland squad as they weathered a number of storms before emerging as 13-8 winners over South Africa in Paris.
Although he was unable to add to his four tries from the last fortnight, Aki was still in barnstorming form and came up with some big plays, both in defence and as a potent ball carrier, on the occasion of his 50th cap.
The Connacht centre collected his second successive Mastercard player-of-the-match award having made a game-high 14 carries for 66 metres, 63 of which were post contact.
Along with a try-saving tackle on Jesse Kriel, his lung-busting first half break was a real highlight. He shrugged off Manie Libbok’s initial challenge and surged clear of three more defenders before barging up into the South African 22.
It is no surprise to Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty that Aki is impressing on rugby’s biggest stage, given his level of preparation for each game and how important a player he has become to this team.
“Bundee was excellent. He is always important. He represents himself and his family unbelievably well and he represents us very well on the field,” said Fogarty, speaking today before the Ireland camp breaks up for some well-deserved time off.
“He is having a great tournament so far and last night was no different. For him to put in such a performance on his 50th cap, we are very proud of him.
“Andy (Farrell) talks about how you make people feel, in attack and defence. What you see from Bundee at the weekend is real physicality, real energy, both sides of the ball.
“But during the week, Bundee is a great character, he does a huge amount of work in preparation with that centre group and the coaches, so he is very clear in his mind around what he needs to do in a game.
“That doesn’t go unnoticed by players – somebody spending the time to make sure they are unbelievably well prepared. On the field he gives so much energy, picking guys off the ground, he is vocal, he has got excellent footwork, real punch in his tackles and carries.
“He makes people feel good on the field. He brings real energy and he is having a hell of a tournament.”
Long may that continue as Ireland face into a down week before ramping things up again for their final pool fixture against Scotland in Saint-Denis on Saturday, October 7.
Fogarty said that the Grand Slam champions have been ‘very lucky with the health of the squad’ so far at the Rugby World Cup and that they are ‘looking at training with a full deck’ again next week.
That means that British & Irish Lions number 8 Jack Conan could return from injury against the Scots, while Stuart McCloskey and Jimmy O’Brien will also be pushing hard for selection after sitting out the opening three rounds.
Meanwhile, after being presented with his player-of-the-match gong by South African legend Bryan Habana, Aki was fulsome in his praise of the Ireland fans who painted the French capital green for the night.
“I am lost for words, these Irish fans are incredible,” said the 33-year-old powerhouse midfielder. “Honestly, I have never witnessed anything like this, the travelling crowd. It’s a joke, completely a joke and it’s only going to get bigger and crazier from here on in.
“Fair play to the boys for playing that well today. South Africa are an outstanding team. They are world champions for a reason. They gave it to us from beginning to end. Whatever happens, we will see them again.”
The world’s top two-ranked teams could yet meet in the World Cup final if both make it to the business end of the competition. There is still a lot of rugby to play before then, and the ‘Boks, given how they recovered from losing to New Zealand in 2019, know that a pool defeat is not fatal.
An absorbing victory such as last night’s has marked Farrell’s men out as one of the teams to beat at RWC 2023. They rode their luck at times, but ‘how we managed to stay on point mentally was fantastic’ according to the Ireland head coach.
Farrell’s comments that they were ‘able to find a way despite (their) inaccuracies’ were echoed by Aki, who pointed to the trust and belief within the squad which has been built up through a record run of 16 straight wins. He added:
As a group and as a team we knew coming into this game, we knew we had to be a lot better than the previous games, in all areas of our game.
“We knew South Africa were going to bring it to us and look, they did. They put us under an immense amount of pressure but we trusted each other and the belief we have in this group is outstanding.”