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Ireland need Bundee Aki to remain a force of nature if they are to capture Six Nations crown

Connacht centre has brought his World Cup form with him into the Six Nations, culminating in Saturday’s Scotland clash

This week we were schooled by Bundee Aki on the doctrine of humility. The Irish centre, a solid block of muscle and a bristling physical presence on the pitch, couldn’t say enough about how Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw make him look good on the pitch.

Quietly spoken, Aki talked about the group, the connections, the growing confidence he gets from the players around him. He has removed the ‘I’ from his vocabulary and while his performances are not always flawless, recently they have been hugely impactful and uniquely eye catching.

From almost halving Elliot Daly with a tackle that displaced the ball in the 67th minute of the game against England to fielding high balls and selflessly muscling up into the charging English bodies, Aki has carried his World Cup form into this Six Nations.

There was a time when his discipline had coaches wondering when his natural exuberance for contact would find trouble and a public expression of that arrived on coach Joe Schmidt’s last lap at the 2019 World Cup.

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Aki was red carded after a tackle in which his left shoulder connected with the head of Samoa’s Ulupano Seuteni. The tackle cost him a three-match suspension including the team’s quarter-final loss to New Zealand.

In Ireland’s last four matches, though, Aki has ripped and thumped into sides and with ball in hand has been one of Ireland’s most effective runners. It was no surprise that his low centre of gravity and strength triggered the only real threatening attack Ireland had in the first half last week in Twickenham. Drawing in three players on the right side of the pitch set up the space for James Lowe to make ground on the other side and spook a home side which at that stage were having it their own way.

Aki had 13 direct involvements in the first half play and 14 in the second half from tackling Sam Underhill, Ellis Genge and Jamie George charging up the middle to turning over red haired Ollie Chessum for Jack Crowley to kick a penalty in the 35th minute and give Ireland an 8-9 lead.

Perhaps as important as the number of influences he has on a match is the effect his plays have on others. He is an energy-giver and as the drummer in the band, the crowd reacts to his solos, whether it is his hits on Daly or George Martin, his turnovers and try assists, or trucking up the pitch, legs pumping bedecked with players trying to drag him down.

“Look, I know individual accolades, individual recognition is good but, know what I mean it’s a team sport,” he says. “I know it’s a cliche saying that, but it is a team sport. It’s how guys make you feel, it’s how guys make you look.

“Like I said, it’s just those guys making me look good. Know what I mean? Just doing what I’m doing as a player and the guys around me are making me look good. I’m just doing what I’m told to do.”

Last October Aki was named as one of four nominees for the World Rugby Player of the Year award following his high viz campaign at the World Cup. He was a standout performer throughout the tournament, scoring two tries against both Romania and Tonga and crossing for a score that almost ignited a successful comeback in the quarter-final against the All Blacks. Five matches, five tries, zero red or yellow cards and 44 carries.

But the 33-year-old is not just a wrecking ball. His link play has also been a contributor and on 44 minutes against England, it was Aki, who took the pass from Caelan Doris and fed it wide to Henshaw with James Lowe scoring his first diving try in the corner.

For Lowe’s second try on 72 minutes, Aki also had hands in the move, this time taking it from replacement scrumhalf Conor Murray and moving it wide. Seconds after the score he was catching his sixth restart before bracing himself to be swallowed by the first English wave.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve had unbelievable support in Ireland,” he says. “You know what I mean? I genuinely mean it. I genuinely do appreciate the people in Ireland, I genuinely appreciate the support that I get.

“And the way for me to be able to repay their support and the love that I get is through how I play. I can’t go individually and try and say ‘thank you’ to everyone because there is a s**tload of them out there. But through my actions and through the way I play, it’s my way of showing. I do mean this. I do really care about this country. I do really care about the people here and the jersey.”

At the open training at Aviva Stadium last week, it was Aki who drew much of the attention from the waving kids. By simply walking in he created an ambiance. To them he was at once the exotic giant with a gentle sounding name and an unbreakable superman, whose passion is never far from over spill.

Maybe that has been the Irish centre’s standout feature throughout this Six Nations championship. We know exactly what to expect from Bundee and against Scotland today the chances are, he’ll give it.

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