Bundee Aki's post-match actions show genuine red card regret
Both men went hard at it, right until the moment their games came to a thudding end.
Bundee Aki would have been stewing all through the Six Nations.
So long a backline and defensive talisman for Ireland, the Connacht centre missed out on Ireland's first four games as Andy Farrell and his coaches settled on a Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose combination in midfield.
Aki can cover 12 and 13, but Ireland were going for either Keith Earls or Jordan Larmour to cover the backline, off the bench, so he went back to work for Connacht. It took an ankle injury to Ringrose to open the door for him again.
Against England, this evening, he was making up for lost time as he snapped and snarled at white jerseys all game. Together, Aki and Henshaw completely outshone their English counterparts - Ollie Lawrence and Owen Farrell.
Henshaw continued his Lions form with another epic outing while Aki was the hunter in defence - getting in English faces and barrelling into tackles; driving men back. In the first half, he dashed back to get Conor Murray out of one hole and save his team the sort of try England have scored ona few occasions in the last couple of years.
Near the end of a first half that swung dramatically Ireland's way, Aki was getting under the skin of several English players. After Tadhg Beirne had secured his side a turnover, Aki came charging in, whooping and hollering. It sparked a response from Billy Vunipola:
"Bundee, shut up! Shut up! Let's play rugby!"
When Aki is chirping, and when Aki is firing, his teams tend to prosper. It has not always been that way for Ireland over the past 18 months, but you can probably count on one hand the lads that have over-performed in a green jersey.
The second half saw Aki keep the foot to the floor. It was the 2017 and 2018 vintage that won him acclaim, and it was giving Farrell & Co. something to think about.
Then came the moment that will cause Aki sleepless nights for a while yet. He went mano a mano with a charging Billy Vunipola and dropped him in a heap.
— Virgin Media Sport (@VMSportIE) March 20, 2021
Watching it live, at the stadium, there was a fearsome thump and a roar from the Irish players. It looked as though Aki had delivered a statement. Unfortunately, and not for the first time, the centre had gone slightly too high. The video replays did him no favours, nor did the English subs roaring in horror with every slow-mo loop of the hit.
And that was that. Aki was marching off for his second red card in nine Ireland outings while an unsteady Vunipola was helped off the pitch. Post-match, Ireland captain Johnny Sexton commented:
"We need to learn the lessons [of earlier defeats], in terms of keeping our discipline in the heat of battle. Obviously, that let us down again today."
As the final whistle sounded, Aki was back on the pitch to shake hands with the English players and embrace his teammates. He hung about to argue his corner with referee Mathieu Raynal before patting him on the back. Ireland head coach Andy Farrell later spoke of Aki seeking out Vunipola as both sets of players left the pitch.
"It's a tough one. I've just been speaking with the referee there and he's asked for my thoughts. I've not yet analysed if properly to have a good look at it. It's tough isn't it? The rules are the rules but... I'll look at it again, but Billy seemed to be on a downward motion, certainly with his head. If there's any contact there, they are looking at that, at this moment in time.
"He's gutted, obviously, is Bundee. He's good mates with Billy as well and he's in the tunnel there, making sure they're still good friends, which they definitely are."
Ireland almost immediately conceded a try to Ben Youngs and another late score to Jonny May, but it was nothing more than a consolation as they won 32-18.
Aki will now have to wait to see how long of a ban he will receive for the red card. It may well depend on what is happening with the PRO14 and those Rainbow Cup plans, but he is in danger of missing out on some Challenge Cup games.