Joe Schmidt has launched a strong defence of Bundee Aki’s right and readiness to wear Ireland’s colours against his native New Zealand on Saturday.
Connacht powerhouse Aki will face the All Blacks for the first time while earning his 12th cap this weekend, when second-placed Ireland host world number-one side New Zealand in Dublin.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster quipped earlier this week about Aki “you have moulded him into an Irish man, he looks like an Irish man now doesn’t he?”
New Zealand might view former Waikato Chiefs centre Aki as one that got away, but Schmidt insisted the 28-year-old, who qualifies for Ireland on residency, has long since proved his Test loyalties.
“I think Bundee has fully demonstrated his commitment through the last year,” said Schmidt.
“He made his debut against South Africa last year in this particular section of the year, and in 2016 he won (PRO12) personality of the year.
“That’s the nature of Bundee and his popularity. Because everybody knows he’s going to give 100 per cent.
“It’s like asking was Jerome Kaino 100 per cent ready to play for the All Blacks, because he was born in a foreign country, or Chris Masoe, or Joe Rokocoko; or any of those guys.
“So having coached all those guys, they were very ready to play for the All Blacks.
“And I know that Bundee Aki is very ready to play for us in this weekend’s fixture.”
Ireland boss Schmidt has restored the dependable lock Devin Toner to his starting line-up following last weekend’s patchy 28-17 win over Argentina.
Dan Leavy will start at openside despite not training fully on Thursday, as Schmidt left it unusually late to finalise his match day squad.
Rob Kearney returns at full-back after shoulder trouble, with Garry Ringrose fit after a hip knock to start at outside centre.
Kieran Marmion has retained his spot at scrum-half with British and Irish Lions talisman Conor Murray still sidelined through neck trouble.
Ireland will face New Zealand for the first time since 2016’s brutal 21-9 loss at the Aviva Stadium, where the All Blacks flexed some serious muscle.
New Zealand vented frustrations at losing to Ireland for the first-ever time just two weeks earlier, when Schmidt’s men pulled off that superlative 40-29 triumph in Chicago.
Malakai Fekitoa was lucky to avoid a red card and Sam Cane’s high hit on Robbie Henshaw went totally unpunished.
Schmidt conceded those refereeing calls confused Ireland at the time, but he insisted this weekend his men must fight fire with fire to stand any chance of victory.
“I think people can make their own minds up about those,” said Schmidt, of the contentious refereeing calls in Dublin in 2016.
“I know the feedback we got was there were some that were unnecessary.
“The were some decisions made by the referee that day that befuddled everybody.
“I don’t think there’s any confusion with that.
“But at the same time, we’ve got to get out there and give as good as we get.
“And that’s what will make it a fairly spiky contest this weekend.
“We expect Dan Leavy to train fully on Friday.
“It’s never ideal but even at the end of training we were still making some decisions for Saturday.
“Dan trained very well on Tuesday but he’s just had a bit of soreness.”