Bundee Aki will head into a disciplinary hearing in Tokyo today to decide his World Cup fate with the backing of old friends from the Samoa camp as Ireland hoped for clemency for their centre ahead of this weekend’s quarter-finals.
Aki’s fate is set to be decided today after Ireland’s inside centre was cited for his red card high tackle on Samoan fly-half Ulupano Seuteni in the bonus-point victory on Saturday that secured progress to the World Cup’s knockout stages.
Having finally reported a fully-fit squad of 31 able bodies for the last eight, Ireland’s main concern now is not to lose one of them to a suspension.
Aki was dismissed by Australian referee Nic Berry in the 28th minute of Saturday’s 47-5 Pool A win in Fukuoka. Ireland were due to travel overnight to Tokyo as the skies reopened to air traffic following Typhoon Hagibis’s trail of destruction but while the rest of the Ireland squad were looking forward to a quarter-final against the All Blacks, Aki will have been concentrating simply on remaining in the tournament following his red card.
His high hit on Seuteni earned a citing for an act of foul play contrary to Law 9.13 (dangerous tackle) with a hearing due at 11:30am Irish time in front of an independent Judicial Committee comprising chair Adam Casselden SC (Australia), former coach Frank Hadden (Scotland) and former referee Valeriu Toma (Romania).
IRFU legal counsel Derek Hegarty landed in Tokyo yesterday and the former Terenure and Leinster scrum-half has arrived into a tournament where organisers have ordered a clampdown on high tackles that has seen Australia’s Reece Hodge and Samoan duo Motu Matu’u and Rey Lee-Lo each receive three-game suspensions for dangerous tackles.
Yet England’s Piers Francis escaped punishment at his hearing a fortnight ago for a high hit on the USA’s Will Hooley.
The centre had gone unpunished during the game, also refereed by Berry, and then avoided a ban in front of a disciplinary committee that also included Hadden, having successfully argued that Hooley’s sudden change of height before the tackle was sufficient mitigation to classify the offence as a yellow rather than red card.
The Irish hope is that a mitigating factor for Aki will be the minimal reaction time, thought to be 0.2 seconds, he had before making the tackle on Seuteni, who did not return from a Head Injury Assessment following the incident. Aki also made a clear attempt to wrap his arms around the ball carrier.
Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell had said last week he felt sorry “for everyone who gets a red card” in such circumstances and yesterday added: “I don’t know anyone playing the game now in world rugby that means to do anything that warrants a red card... I’ll keep my powder dry until after the process on this one.
We haven’t had the referee’s report yet, so it’s very hard to comment. We believe that in the next 36 hours, there will be a hearing so we’ll see how that goes.
“It’s tough, isn’t it? It’s tough the reaction stuff. It’s very tough to judge. You can slow everything down and everyone has a comment, ‘Oh, what if this happened? What if that happened?’ But I’d like to think there’s a bit of feel in and around the whole situation.”
Aki’s case for clemency was supported by Samoa coach Steve Jackson who said the Pacific Islanders would do anything they could to help the Ireland centre play again in this tournament.
Jackson expressed the hope that the “powers-that-be see some sense” and there was more sympathy expressed when Tim Nanai-Willaims, Samoa’s full-back and a close childhood friends of Aki’s, was asked for his take on the incident.
“It’s very hard,” said the Clermont Auvergne back who played with Aki for the Chiefs. “It’s very hard to change your technique when everything is going a hundred miles an hour and you’ve got to try to protect yourself as much as you can and I honestly hope he gets off for it.
“It is just a reaction thing, a split second. He is obviously trying to protect himself too but, in saying that, that is just how the rules are these days and we just have to try and do as much as can and live by the rules.”
For Nanai-Williams, who also togged out with Aki at underage levels and for Counties Manukau, it was “weird” to actually play against the man who grew up just five blocks away in the southern Auckland suburb of Manurewa.
The pair, along with a handful of other Samoan players, met for dinner in Fukuoka last week. It was the first time the two had met since Aki’s move to Connacht from the Chiefs five years ago and it was the Irish
international who was left footing the bill.
Nanai-Williams got a laugh out of that. What he appreciated more was the opportunity to touch base again with an old friend with whom he had started out playing touch rugby on the street as nippers. “It was more just now after the game, seeing what me and him and Ray (Lee-Lo) have achieved through the years,” he said when asked about their chats.