The last time Bundee Aki wore the green jersey, things did not end well but four months on, the Ireland centre is relishing the opportunity to make amends.
Aki, 29, will return to the Irish midfield Saturday to face Scotland in the 2020 Six Nations opener, 16 weeks on from the split-second decision that led to the red card that ended his World Cup campaign.
It was a margin call, Aki bouncing out of contact and straight into another tackle, his collision with Samoa fly-half Ulupano Seuteni high enough to receive his marching orders and a three-week ban that ruled the Connacht star out of the following week’s quarter-final and the potential semi and final that never materialised.
Robbie Henshaw replaced Aki at inside centre to face the All Blacks in Tokyo, with Aki praised for his continuing commitment to the cause in helping to prepare the team despite knowing he could play no part in the knockout rounds.
His reward has been Ireland selection ahead of Henshaw by new head coach Andy Farrell in the side to face the Scots back in Dublin.
“It’s always special to put on that green jersey,” Aki said. “Haven’t put on that jersey since the last time at the World Cup and we’ll see what happens.
This week, I’ll be doing everything I can to help out this team and trying to play very well.
“It was unfortunate,” he said of his red card, “pretty disappointing at my end but I get a chance now to put the jersey back on and make everyone proud again, and hopefully I’ll play in the jersey with a lot of pride.
“Obviously you always want to try to rectify yourself. You always want to play a lot better than the last time you played.
“Everyone around me, my family, realised how disappointed I was finishing the World Cup the way it ended, but you can’t do anything at that time, decisions were made and the only way to deal with it was to play rugby again, try and play rugby the way you do best and you try not to think about that tackle, and try not to think about not making it happen again, you just want to try and enjoy rugby and go back to the basics because that’s what it is.
“If you look at it, how fast it happened, you know what I mean?
“It’s an instinct, it’s a reaction and it’s the way we grow up as rugby players, you just follow your instinct and obviously, if you think about it you’d go back and try and adjust, I don’t know, to be really clinical about the way I tackled.
“Yes, I should have gone lower, yes, I should have slowed my feet down, yes, I should have done this and that.
But it just happened so quick, it happened so fast and it just ended the way it did.
Aki is determined not to dwell on the past and instead focus on the future but he admitted that it is not so easy to put that into practice.
“It does linger for a while. I have that in the back of my head, knowing what happened in the past, knowing that it’s going to sit with you for a while but still be able to focus on the next week or the next moment because you can’t let that affect the way you play, and keep affecting the way you play.
“You still have to play the game you want to play and still play as hard as you can, as best as you can and you’re going to do that knowing that there were things that you weren’t satisfied with in the previous few games.”
The sending off could have brought Aki to a career crossroads with plenty of interest overseas in his services yet the Auckland-born centre is driven to succeed in his adopted homeland and the signing of an IRFU central contract last November that keeps him in Ireland with Connacht for an additional three years, taking him up to at least the next World Cup in 2023.
I have unfinished business here and I’m just going to keep going until I make sure that business is done ... I have goals here and it is making sure I adhere to those goals.