Warren Gatland will send Bundee Aki into the final test with a mission to stop opposite number Damian de Allende — the British & Irish Lions centre will relish that battle as much as the honour of starting against South Africa on Saturday.
Aki, 31, is yet to see any game-time in this series against the Springboks, despite having impressed in the first five matches of this Lions adventure.
Now the Connacht man’s moment has arrived as the tourists bid to get their series victory bid back on track following a comprehensive second-test defeat last Saturday that sends this rivalry in a final, decisive game at Cape Town Stadium this weekend.
Gatland has made clear what he needs from Aki, who is reunited with his former Connacht midfield partner and Ireland teammate Robbie Henshaw, to get the Lions onto the front foot with the ball and snuff out what the head coach describes as “hit-up merchant” de Allende.
“They used de Allende a lot off 9 as a hit-up merchant so Bundee has been brought in there to try and negate that,” Gatland said.
“But he’s also a good rugby player in terms of getting some go-forward. He’s not just a hit-up person, he’s got some really good footwork and offloading ability and the other thing is to give Robbie an opportunity at test-match level in that 13 channel too.”
That will suit Aki down to the ground. The former Waikato Chief said: “Everyone knows Damian de Allende, he’s a world-class player and a world champion. He’s unbelievable. I was lucky to be able to play against him against Munster and in the first (Ireland) Test when I had my debut (In November 2017).
“He’s one of those players and people who have been there, done it, and they know what they’re doing. You try to relish and enjoy that time and obviously you try to do the best you can to help out the team.
“I can’t speak highly enough of Damian de Allende, he’s a good bloke as well off the pitch. What you see on the pitch, how angry he gets and how strong he is, he’s such a nice bloke off the pitch. You could ask anyone in that Munster team, Conor (Murray) speaks highly of him and he’s got that off the pitch.”
Aki is under no illusions about the challenge lying in front of the Lions against a team that have conceded just one try in the first two tests and only three since losing to New Zealand in the opening game of the last World Cup in September 2019.
It is a big part of the reason they became world champions less than two months later.
Aki said: “It’s going to be tough, there are a few plans in place for us. We need to get good cohesiveness together as a group, make sure we get across our work as a group and make sure we get the result.
“It’s finals rugby. Watching from the (stands last week) in the first half, I thought we had done unbelievably well and obviously South Africa had another gear on top of us. They came out and thoroughly deserved that win, we’re not going to sit back and say we should have won the game. They played unbelievably well and came out firing on all cylinders.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re on top of that as well and make sure we’re firing on all cylinders as well. It’s finals rugby, it is what it is. Winner takes all.”