Ireland squad uniting behind Bundee Aki after criticism

Rob Kearney feels the criticism of Bundee Aki’s impending debut for Ireland helped forge a stronger bond among Joe Schmidt’s crew and one which fed into the first of their November internationals, against South Africa, last weekend.

A Kiwi born and bred, Aki was the latest player to wear the Irish jersey thanks to the soon-to-be-extended three-year residency ruling.

Kearney revealed there was an understanding among his new squadmates that he maybe “needed a bit more love”.

“When you are going out to represent your country in big games you need a massive level of togetherness. Brotherhood is a word you hear a huge amount of times between players. When you go out to battle like that it is something that you do need.

“We would have recognised over the last few weeks that Bundee was taking a little bit of stick for nothing that he’s done. He has just wanted to come here and play for Ireland and it probably does bring you together a little bit more.”

How much more was readily apparent against the Springboks with the home players repeatedly roaring encouragement at each other and making a point of celebrating every big tackle or turnover with copious high fives and slaps on the back.

It was all very… un-Irish, in a way.

“It wasn’t conscious, no,” said Kearney. “But I was actually thinking the same thing on Sunday evening: That we were celebrating a lot of those small wins. There is a real good energy and togetherness in the squad at the moment.

“Sometimes you come into November and you don’t have that, for one reason or another.

“I can’t put my finger on it this time, as to why there is a good energy. But certainly that was something that we demonstrated at the weekend.”

Aki’s was a low-key presence in camp over the fortnight leading up to his Test debut, but Kearney confirmed what the TV pictures showed during the anthems — that the Connacht centre was decidedly nervous before making such a significant first step.

And, as we know now, primed to pounce.

His first contribution was a thumping tackle — aided by Jonathan Sexton — on South African prop Coenie Oosthuizen barely a minute in, which sent the 130kg forward reeling backwards and onto the turf, where he remained with a serious injury.

“It set a massive tone,” said Kearney, “and when you see the opposition tighthead going off after 70 seconds, it’s a nice feeling. It is. And then to go and win the scrum penalty straight away, it set down a real marker at the start of the game.”

And for the season at large, too.

Kearney is 77 caps into his Test career now. He has seen before how a poor opening performance in November can seep into the rest of the month and even infect the team’s Six Nations campaign three months later.

Ireland clearly have momentum behind them. That goes back to the 13-9 win against England at the back end of the last Six Nations, stretches through the three-game summer tour to the USA and Japan, and continued with the 35-point defeat of the Springboks.

It’s a run Fiji are unlikely to end on Saturday, even with Ireland making wholesale changes.

Some of Schmidt’s options will be tempered by availability. Keith Earls (hamstring) and John Ryan (calf) have returned to Munster to rehab injuries. Peter O’Mahony remains in situ despite receiving stitches to the ear injury suffered three days ago.

Jordi Murphy and Sean Reidy have joined the squad following injuries to Tommy O’Donnell and Dan Leavy which ruled that latter pair out of selection last week, while Jack Conan is back in full training after sitting out last week’s proceedings.

See to Fiji, and Argentina a week later, and Ireland can crane their necks forward to the Six Nations with a bedrock of seven wins on the bounce. A tantalising prospect for a side that hasn’t always been known for the consistency of its excellence.

“As a group we were delighted with the win and the result,” said Kearney of the Springboks experience. “It was a comprehensive victory. The challenge to this team and probably Irish teams over the past decade has been to back that up and do it consistently.

“Not have one really good, unbelievable performance and then have a dip the following week. You want to be known as a consistently excellent team as opposed to just an excellent team that has an ability to dip in performance.”

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