Bundee Aki and Darren Sweetnam stand poised to complete very different but equally demanding journeys into Test rugby when they pull on an Ireland jersey in Dublin tomorrow evening.
Aki, New Zealand-born of Samoan heritage, left a home on the other side of the world three years ago to fulfil his professional sporting ambitions.
Sweetnam came from West Cork but sacrificed an inter-county hurling career with the Rebel County to start on the bottom rung with the oval ball.
Tomorrow evening’s Guinness Series Test against South Africa will see both men take the big step at the Aviva Stadium after adopted Connachtman Aki, 27, was named yesterday at inside centre, while Munster’s Sweetnam, 24, was handed a place among the replacements as outside backs cover in a matchday squad big on experience yet with an eye on the 2019 World Cup.
That Sweetnam got the call was in part down to a hamstring injury for his provincial team-mate Keith Earls that not only threatens the wing’s involvement in all three November Tests but also Munster’s Champions Cup home and away battles with Leicester Tigers next month.
Earls, who had been in flying form since Ireland’s summer tour to the United States and Japan, picked up the injury in training on Tuesday, with another in-form Munster wing, Andrew Conway, moving onto the right wing for his fourth cap and Ulster’s Jacob Stockdale named by head coach Joe Schmidt on the left wing for the 21-year-old’s third start in green after a try-scoring debut against the US in June.
The rest of the starting XV is well seasoned with Cian Healy continuing at loosehead prop after British & Irish Lions front-rower Jack McGrath was not considered after missing last week’s training sessions with a hip issue.
Rob Kearney returns from injury at full-back and the established Lions half-back combination of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton reunited in green for the first time since the trip to Wales in the penultimate Six Nations encounter last March.
In picking Aki, Schmidt has also reformed Connacht’s PRO12-winning midfield by pairing the debutant with Robbie Henshaw, who starts at outside centre.
Controversy has raged rage in some quarters around Aki’s selection, with former international Neil Francis declaring on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live this week that calling him up was “ethically and morally wrong”.
Yet here he is and legitimately so, qualifying under World Rugby’s current three-year residency rule, just as Jared Payne Quinn Roux and CJ Stander did under the incumbent Ireland boss. Schmidt was never going to enter the debate of whether the centre should be in the squad, any more than he did with the trio that preceded Aki and Peter O’Mahony, who will start at blindside flanker in a back row featuring his Munster team-mate Stander at No.8, defended Ireland’s right to benefit from that rule.
“I’ve been very lucky to play alongside some super players that have benefited and have come in from that rule,” O’Mahony said.
”It’s a rule that stands there and Bundee, or any of the [previous] lads, have done nothing wrong.
“I can’t understand why there was such a focus on him, personally. I didn’t think it was very impressive from the media point of view, to be honest. That’s the job and the life that we run, and it is part and parcel of it, and I suppose it’s water off a duck’s back for him.”
Schmidt certainly has no qualms, his selection criteria limited to Aki’s potential at Test level.
“Bundee has slotted in really well but I don’t think it’s any different for Darren Sweetnam or anyone else,” Schmidt said. “Darren’s been in one or two other camps, Bundee came in for just the single day we had earlier in the season. So people have dipped their toe in and now they’ve got to plunge in and it’s a pretty deep pool first up.
“One of the things that is good about Bundee and a few of the other players that have come in is they are quite instinctive players. Jacob Stockdale, his instinct is to carry and to be very strong and try to take the outside break and if that’s what he sees, that’s what we want to back himself doing. It’s as simple as that really.”
Of the ongoing debate continuing about Aki outside of the Ireland camp bubble, Schmidt added: “I really hope for his sake and for the team’s sake that he has a scorching game and hopefully that will appease some of the doubters, but I know there’s an incredible amount of people who are really positive about his involvement as well.”
As for Sweetnam, Schmidt is equally convinced the Munster wing is ready for the step up to Test rugby.
“He seems a real calm, settled sort of guy. He doesn’t get ruffled and I think a lot of times when you make errors stepping up to the next level, yes, it’s more physical, yes, you’ve got less time and space, so there’s more urgency to make decisions and you can be unsettled by that. He’s pretty calm, he’s got some good footwork, he knows where the try line is, he finishes well, he’s got some good defensive habits and some that we’ll keep working on. He’s a package that’s interesting and he’ll be looking to become a more complete package through these three weeks.”
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