What modern rugby takes away with one hand it gives back with another, writes Brendan O’Brien.
So it is that Simon Zebo’s X-factor on the park and effervescence off it has been replaced to an extent in the Ireland camp by Bundee Aki whose enviable and physical abilities with the ball come entwined with a personality that is equally captivating.
Ireland aren’t spoilt for choice at centre right now so Aki’s availability under the three-year residency ruling is timely for the latest round of November internationals which begin this Saturday with an opener against South Africa in Dublin.
A good guy to have on the field, Aki is the type who can be a release valve in a Test environment where standards are so high and expectations so exacting.
His celebrations when Connacht won the Guinness PRO12 two seasons ago speak for that.
It was Aki who took the lead when Pat Lam’s boys danced a jig of joy on the Murrayfield pitch after the final defeat of Leinster and the same 27-year-old who instigated the team chant on the plane home that swept social media.
His musical tastes have already been noted in Carton House.
“It’s all, like, rap music,” said Keith Earls. “It is good in the gym, fellas put up their own music and the mob are either with you or against you. Even if it is a good song you will probably hear abuse for it. I’ve done well so far, Rob Kearney hasn’t.”
Earls and Kearney are very much of the older brigade now. Jonathan Sexton, who isn’t slow to let a much younger Joey Carbery know what he thinks of his musical preferences, is another of the ‘vets’ for whom much will have changed with this latest camp.
Zebo’s absence is the most obvious alteration. “It’s always quieter when he’s not around,” said Earls of his Munster teammate who has been dropped by Schmidt for moving to France next summer. “He’s always causing havoc. That’s just life. That’s just the way it is.”
Schmidt has opted to draft in four uncapped players to his squad while others besides still sit at the foothills of their Test careers. The goal is to put the building blocks in place for the next World Cup in Japan.
That is still two years down the road though. Earls is adamant that the newbies he sees in training are “freaks”. Bigger and faster and stronger players at a younger age whose time is now and not just come the global gig in Japan.
Jacob Stockdale is a prime example.
“He’s a phenomenal talent,” said Earls of the Ulster youngster who featured on the opposite wing to him against Japan last June.
“From the moment I saw him and trained with him, I knew he had something special.
“He’s been playing unbelievably for Ulster this year, he’s massive.
“He’s fast, he’s an incredible finisher and he’s so strong too. He ticks all the boxes. He’ll make mistakes as he gets older and it will start getting difficult when teams start figuring him out and what he’s about. But in my eyes right now, he ticks every box.”
It goes without saying that he feels the same about Aki, a Super Rugby champion with the Chiefs long before he made the move to Galway, yet there is no doubt but that Schmidt will continue to lean heavily on some familiar faces.
Especially this week against the Springboks.
Earls has always been a favourite of Ireland’s Kiwi coach. He’s 30 now and 62 caps into his international career. “Bizarre,” he says when he thinks about the passage of time but the years have been good to him.
Earls’ form has been generally excellent of late. He was superb on the summer tour to the USA and Japan, but it is the frustrating 2-1 series loss in South Africa last year for which Ireland will be seeking atonement this weekend.
“We have gone back looking at those videos and we were so close to winning a series down there and a lot of it was around our own mistakes that we have, hopefully, learnt from.
“It’s going to be a physical game on Saturday. It’s going to be the same, South Africa went through a poor patch there for a while but they seem to have found themselves again and they’re on the up. They’re going to be extremely dangerous and they’ll be better than 2016.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.