Bundee Aki said it would be “a huge honour” to win his 50th cap for Ireland on Saturday when he lines up for the eagerly-awaited Rugby World Cup Pool B match between the Six Nations Grand Slam winners and defending champions South Africa.
The 33-year-old New Zealand-born centre has been in outstanding form in Ireland’s first two games, scoring four tries and being named man of the match in the 59-16 victory over Tonga last Saturday.
“It is a huge occasion,” said Aki.
“Within myself and my family it is a huge honour to put the jersey on 50 times, I do not take it lightly.”
Aki said when he first arrived in Ireland to play for Connacht he would never have dreamed of the landmark.
“No not a hope,” he said. “I said to someone before to be able to get to 50 is like getting 100 caps.
“50 is a big number. I know how hard it is to get to a 100, I am just lucky to put it on for a 50th time.”
Fly-half Johnny Sexton will captain an Irish side that shows just a single change from the one that started against Tonga, with Jamison Gibson-Park returning at scrum-half.
“Bit of continuity, it’s a good side,” said head coach Andy Farrell. “One that’s ready to take on the world champions.”
Conor Murray, Sexton’s long-time half-back partner, drops to the bench.
Farrell said Murray was in great form but Gibson-Park just had the edge.
“Looking forward to him just being himself and producing the form he has produced throughout his Irish international career,” said Farrell.
“His skillset and pace is something we all enjoy watching.”
Alongside Murray on the bench will be Dan Sheehan, who has recovered from injury and replaces Rob Herring as the replacement hooker.
“Dan Sheehan is fit and raring to go,” said Farrell.
“He’s in good condition, he’s a world-class hooker in my opinion and he gets his chance.”
‘Do or die’
Farrell has not followed his opposite number Jacques Nienaber in naming a 7-1 bench in favour of the forwards to the backs.
The Ireland coach prefers a more balanced five forwards and three backs.
Farrell, asked if he had re-thought his make-up due to Nienaber’s decision, replied: “No, not at all.”
Farrell said he saw only positives in how Nienaber had lined up his bench, a first in a World Cup.
“It’s great. It obviously suits them, they know their squad and so do we,” he said.
“I did pose the question to our forwards coaches, would we do a 7/1 split with seven backs and one forward but they wouldn’t do it,” he added joking.
“It shows exactly where they want to go with their game-plan. We are the same with some of the stuff that we do as well.”
The Irish are on a run of 15 successive Test victories, which includes one against the Springboks last November, but Farrell said it had not all been smooth since he took over after the 2019 World Cup.
“Our journey’s had all sorts and it prepares you for bits like this,” said Farrell.
“I suppose we’ll learn a bit more after this one as well.”
Farrell, who has rebounded from a shaky start as head coach to mastermind not only the winning run and Grand Slam but also a historic series win in New Zealand over the All Blacks, said he did not see the Test as a must win.
Defeat for the Irish, though, would probably leave them with a must win final pool game against Scotland.
“It’s not a do or die type of game but it’s pretty important to both teams, let’s put it that way,” he said.
Sexton said he was looking forward to the rumoured 30,000 Irish fans being in the Stade de France giving the team a huge boost.
“You soak up the atmosphere, don’t you?” he said.
“But it’s only when you win, that’s when you get to enjoy it. If you’re walking around the stadium after a defeat it’s not the same.”
World Cup News
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