Bundee Aki has one more chance to prove that he should be Ireland's first-choice centre 1 year ago

Bundee Aki has one more chance to prove that he should be Ireland's first-choice centre

There's nothing wrong with Bundee Aki. There's nothing wrong with him at all.

In fact, there's an awful lot to admire about his game and how he plays his rugby.

He's direct, he's overtly physical, he runs intelligent lines, he can offload the ball and he often makes the right play at the right time. They're good traits to have as an inside centre.

https://youtu.be/PJ8r2Xvu6UA

Aki's biggest problem is is that he's in the unfortunate position of having to compete with Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose for his place in the Irish team.

The young Leinster duo worked incredibly well last weekend in Ireland's series tying win over Australia in Melbourne just as they have done for most of this season with their province.

Ringrose and Henshaw complement each other's games well, they share a great understanding of how to defend together, and maybe above all else, they're incredibly talented rugby players.

Schmidt made five changes to the Ireland side that triumphed over Australia in Melbourne for the series decider in Sydney this weekend with Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Jack Conan, Jacob Stockdale and Aki all coming back into the starting side, but how many of those players will realistically challenge for a permanent spot in Schmidt's first team?

Stockdale is a certainty, that much is clear, but McGrath has conceded his place to Cian Healy this season after winning that battle in years goneby.

Cronin has spent most of his international career as Rory Best's deputy. Conan may challenge CJ Stander next season with a continued run in the Leinster team but the Munster number eight has so far been Schmidt's clear frontrunner in the post-Jamie Heaslip era.

That leaves Aki and two other players vying for two positions in the Irish midfield.

One of those players is Robbie Henshaw, arguably the best player in Irish Rugby this season until a dislocated shoulder cruelly cut short his Six Nations campaign against Italy.

Henshaw returned against the Scarlets two months later in a Champions Cup semi-final for Leinster and he was one of the best players on the pitch at inside centre.

He carried that form throughout the remainder of the season for the PRO14 and Champions Cup champions but he looked slightly adrift defensively when he was moved to outside centre for Ireland's first Test loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane earlier this month.

Credit: RugbyPass

Henshaw has shown over the last two seasons that he is more suited to playing at 12, his free-wheeling full-back days seem to be all but over after putting on considerable size since his time at Connacht, which leaves Schmidt in a situation where he will have to make a long term decision between playing Aki at inside centre and Ringrose at outside centre.

It is understood that Ringrose has been ruled out of Saturday's third Test decider with a foot injury which gives Aki one last major opportunity to stake his claim for a place in the centres ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup.

Injuries to Ringrose and Henshaw this year has often taken that decision out of Schmidt's hands but at some point in time it's one of the few positions in his squad, alongside second-row and openside flanker, where he's eventually going to have to settle on one player among a crop of genuinely outstanding talents, injuries permitting.

Ireland play more direct and blunt with Aki at inside centre, highlighted by his game high 19 carries in the first Test in Brisbane, but it may not necessarily be Ireland's best approach.

Ringrose has proven to be Ireland's best defender on the fringes but he also has developed dramatically as a playmaker this season.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aITIVc942bA

He showed great signs of his ability to create against Scotland in the Six Nations earlier this year and he also showed further signs of his passing improvements in Melbourne last weekend when he sent tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong galloping through a hole with a brilliant ball at the line.

Ringrose is improving with each game he plays in green and he's quickly becoming an instrumental part of how Ireland attack and increasingly how they defend.

"Australia were targeting Ireland in the wide channels," said McLaughlin on The Hard Yards after the first Test loss.

"I think they would have looked at a couple of the games in the Six Nations and said Ireland are frail there.

"Wales exposed us there a few times and when you have guys like Beale and Foley that can zip passes they can get there.

"They've got guys like [Israel] Folau and [Marika] Koroibete there, really dangerous guys. I think we missed Ringrose. I think he is the best defending 13 in the Irish squad right now and I think he'll make a difference there."

Ringrose did make a difference and Aki will have to bring something different to the third Test. He's not as agile as Ringrose, nor he does run with the same type of guile or grace as the dynamic Leinster centre, but he brings power, punch and an ability to consistently find his way over the gainline.

He's more similar to Henshaw than he is to Ringrose and probably too similar to him according to former Munster inside centre James Downey.

"When you have centres like that, not so much bludgeoning, but they're physical centres and they matched up against the Aussie guys but we need someone as a get out," said Downey.

"If Joey [Carbery] had Garry Ringrose he knows he can put him on the outside and Garry can have that opportunity to have an outside break and stretch the Aussies.

"I think we had them in positions where we should have put them away and exploited some frailties out wide but I just think they're too similar.

"I know it's worked at Connacht for them, and it was great at the start when Bundee was starting that he had his partner from Connacht when they played together there, it was a bit of a seamless integration for him, but I'd prefer someone with a bit more kick.

"I think Robbie now has been moulded into more of a 12 so I'd like to see Robbie push back in [to inside centre] and get that Leinster trio."

The Connacht centre has been very solid for Ireland this season but unfortunately solid may not be enough for him when battling with Henshaw and Ringrose in the future.

This weekend's game won't be his last chance to stake his claim in what should be an ongoing battle between the three players next season but it's a major chance for him to show that he can compete with Ringrose and that he is deserving of his place in the Irish midfield.

Whether he takes advantage of that opportunity to forge a long term place in the centres is another question, but he's there this weekend and Schmidt, much like the rest of us, will be paying close attention to how he fares as Ireland continue to test their depth and mettle with a series on the line.

How far we've come in such a short space of time.