AKI BREAKY HEART

Sch­midt’s sad­dened by neg­a­tive re­ac­tion to Bundee in­clu­sion and hopes the cen­tre has a ‘scorch­ing’ de­but to si­lence crit­ics

Daily Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - SPORT - BY MICHAEL SCULLY

A ‘SCORCH­ING’ de­but by Bundee Aki could take the heat out of crit­i­cism of the Auck­land man’s Ire­land in­volve­ment to­mor­row evening.

That’s the hope of head coach Joe Sch­midt who ad­mits he hasn’t no­ticed such a storm about the em­ploy­ment of a res­i­dency rule player be­fore.

Richardt Strauss was the first, when he made his Test de­but against his na­tive South Africa back in Novem­ber 2012.

Since then Jared Payne and CJ Stander have firmly es­tab­lished them­selves as Sch­midt favourites.

But in the back­ground the de­bate about the use of for­eign play­ers has raged on and while Sch­midt says the play­ers and man­age­ment are in their own “bub­ble” in Car­ton House as they pre­pare for the game, he con­fesses he feels sym­pa­thy for Aki.

The 27-year-old Con­nacht cen­tre’s in­clu­sion in an Ire­land squad for the first time be­came a big talk­ing point in mid­week.

Ex-in­ter­na­tional Neil Fran­cis said on RTE TV’S Claire Byrne Live pro­gramme that it was “fun­da­men­tally wrong” the Kiwi of Samoan her­itage would play.

“I’m luck­ily un­aware of it,” claimed Sch­midt (right). “Peo­ple will throw things up be­cause they’re things that they feel they can cre­ate in­ter­est about.

“I re­ally hope for his sake and for the team’s sake that he has a scorch­ing game, 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.

“For a lot of peo­ple, they are re­ally ex­cited to see him play. He’s at­tracted so much at­ten­tion fo Con­nacht.

“I’m not sure there’s been a player who has qual­i­fied for Ire­land that has cre­ated as much in­ter­est.”

Sch­midt men­tioned Payne, whose abil­ity to play cen­tre and at full-back did cause much de­bate, with many fans want­ing him to start in the No15 shirt.

“Iron­i­cally the last time we went to South Africa he started at 15 in that fan­tas­tic game we man­aged to win in Cape Town,” he said.

“It’s some­thing that comes up each time there’s some­one new who does but I haven’t known it to be as vis­i­ble as this.

“It’s nice be­ing out here in the bub­ble so you can just fo­cus on what he ac­tu­ally brings to the group rather than peo­ple’s opin­ions about what he’s do­ing in the group.”

As things stand, the three-year res­i­dency rule will give way to a five-year one in De­cem­ber 2020. “I don’t have an opin­ion on it,” in­sisted Sch­midt. “I just fol­low the rules and then I try to best pre­pare a team.”

Aki isn’t the only player mak­ing his Ire­land de­but. Ja­cob Stock­dale, the 21-year-old Ul­ster winger, has also earned his chance but his in­clu­sion has been some­what over­shad­owed.

Sch­midt feels that the fo­cus on Aki, who will link up with Rob­bie Henshaw in mid­field again for the first time since they helped drive Con­nacht to PRO12 ti­tle suc­cess in May last year, is partly be­cause Si­mon Zebo was omit­ted from the squad.

“I’d re­it­er­ate that you should never say never about Si­mon Zebo ei­ther,” he pointed out. “But with 19 Test matches to go be­fore the World Cup, this seemed like the ideal op­por­tu­nity if Si­mon Zebo is not go­ing to be in the coun­try dur­ing the World Cup build-up and that com­pli­cates it.

“We all re­main re­ally fo­cused on who isn’t there but we’re just go­ing to work as hard as we can to be as com­pet­i­tive as we can be­cause we know the size of the chal­lenge we’re up against.

“With Bundee, he’s slot­ted in re­ally well but I don’t think it’s any dif­fer­ent for Dar­ren Sweet­nam or any­one else.

“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.”

OLYMPIC Cham­pion Lizzy Yarnold won a bronze in the open­ing race of the new Skeleton World Cup sea­son. Yarnold (above) moved up from fifth after her first run in Lake Placid. Ja­nine Flock of Aus­tria was the win­ner. Yarnold’s GB team-mate Laura Deas was fifth.

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