Ireland centre Bundee Aki hopes to make a statement as he goes up against England juggernaut Manu Tuilagi in Dublin.
Aki “stayed away” from his opposite number the last time the pair faced each other – 12 years ago in a college game – but he will see plenty of the 27-year-old as Ireland begin their Six Nations defence on Saturday.
New Zealand-born Aki’s rugby odyssey has seen him settle with Connacht, where he is now the passionate heartbeat of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad.
The former Waikato Chiefs centre enjoyed a sixth-form stint at Truro College and while there he faced Tuilagi, who then played for John Cleveland College.
Aki said: “I remember playing against Manu in England when I went to school in Cornwall, to Truro College, we had a game and he was on the wing.
“He was a young kid back then. I remember playing that game. It was me and (Newcastle and Fiji utility back) Josh Matavesi playing in that same team.
“That was the only time, back then, but I didn’t go up against him as he was obviously out on the wing so I stayed away. If you see my photos back then I wasn’t big, I was a very skinny kid.”
Aki is ready to face the modern-day Tuilagi, who will make his first Six Nations start since 2013.
“The likes of Owen Farrell and Manu, they are very physical,” Aki said. “Farrell is deceptively strong and Manu is just the same. You can see it in the way he carries the ball.
“In any game you play against the English, you’ve just got to make sure your physicality is up there. You can’t go in there thinking they will play a wide game and you forget about the physicality.
“That’s your first point of contact, making sure you make a statement and make a mark on that.”
Ireland’s boldest selection call in some time has been for head coach Joe Schmidt to shift centre Robbie Henshaw to full-back for Saturday’s hotly-anticipated battle.
Stalwart full-back Rob Kearney is fit but Schmidt has handed Henshaw just his second cap in the number 15 shirt.
Asked what Henshaw brings to 15, Schmidt said: “I think a game intelligence. You have got to be able to anticipate play really well and connect in that pendulum with the back-three.
“He is exceptional in the air, akin to Rob Kearney.
“I think he has the full spectrum of skills required to play the position and we would love it if that was evident on Saturday.”
Asked if it would be premature to write off Kearney’s Test career, Schmidt added: “Yes, definitely. There isn’t one big game where Rob has not had an impact in big moments.”
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France boss Jacques Brunel believes Test match rookie Romain Ntamack is “a strong pick” for Friday’s Six Nations opener against Wales.
On the surface, Brunel has adopted a bold approach with his midfield selections, partnering 19-year-old Ntamack with richly-talented Clermont Auvergne centre Wesley Fofana.
Ntamack’s debut comes 25 years after his father Emile first played for Les Bleus – Wales were also the opponents – and much is expected of the Toulouse player.
But while Ntamack can look forward to his big chance, France’s defensive linchpin Mathieu Bastareaud – a regular during Brunel’s reign – has been omitted and not even made the matchday 23.
“Romain Ntamack is a strong pick,” head coach Brunel said. “Of course, he is a lad whose qualities we all know.
“He has shown since the start of the season that he is capable of adapting to the levels he has played at.
“He (Bastareaud) is an important player in the squad. He has definitely not been thrown out.”
But however much flair France might possess behind the scrum, there is no escaping the presence of a huge pack that has a combined weight of just over 150 stones.
And that would suggest they will target Wales in the scrums and mauls as Les Bleus aim for only a second victory form the last eight starts against their Paris visitors.
Key to the French forward effort will be South Africa-born lock Paul Willemse, who joins Ntamack in winning a first cap.
The former Junior Springbok received his French passport only two months ago, and Brunel has wasted no time thrusting him into the Test match arena.
France, though, have it all to do to make an impression on this season’s tournament, with Wales, England and Ireland clear favourites to feature in the title shake-up.
Les Bleus have not been crowned Six Nations champions since 2010, while they have claimed just two top-three finishes during the subsequent eight seasons.
Defeat to Wales would immediately put them on the back foot, but a win against Warren Gatland’s team will have the opposite effect and set up an intriguing Twickenham appointment with England on Sunday week.
Wales and France kick off the Six Nations in Paris on Friday. Wales have beaten Les Bleus in six of their last seven meetings, while victory at Stade de France would give Warren Gatland’s team a 10th successive win against all opponents and equal their best undefeated sequence since 1999.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at some of the talking points ahead of the match.
Wales in pursuit of a perfect 10
Momentum counts for an awful lot in any tournament, and the Six Nations is no exception. Wales are currently on a roll, unbeaten for nine matches since Ireland toppled them in Dublin at the midway point of last season’s competition.
They have seen off South Africa (twice), Argentina (twice), France, Australia, Scotland, Italy and Tonga during that run, including a first autumn Tests clean sweep, while France lost eight games last year.
Wales used to dishing out French lessons
Wales beat France at Parc des Princes in 1975 – and then went 24 years before defeating them again on French soil. But since the Six Nations’ inception 19 years ago, it has been a far more even tale of the tape.
Of the nine Six Nations encounters played between the countries in France, Wales have won four and Les Blues five. Of the last seven matches home and away, though, Wales hold a 6-1 advantage, which is a statistic that should not be discounted.
Warren Gatland farewell factor
If Wales reach the World Cup final in Japan later this year, then Gatland’s last chapter as head coach will cover 16 Tests in 2019. He departs the job he has held since late 2007 after rugby union’s next global extravaganza, so this season’s Six Nations will be his final one at the helm.
Two of his coaching lieutenants – Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards – are also departing, representing a significant changing of the guard. Gatland’s players will be determined to make the long goodbye a memorable one.
What can be expected from France?
Since winning the title and a Grand Slam in 2010, France have only twice secured a top-three Six Nations finish.
Form from earlier this season – notably autumn Test defeats at home to South Africa and Fiji – suggests another struggle, yet Les Bleus still have huge talent in their squad, which is underlined by players like Louis Picamoles, Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, plus bright young stars such as Romain Ntamack and Demba Bamba.
Consistently inconsistent has become Les Bleus’ trademark.
What is the likely outcome?
A Wales win. In keeping with recent history between the countries, it is likely to be an arm-wrestle of a contest and possibly low scoring, but Gatland’s men are unbeaten since February and look to have a pack that will stand up, slug it out and potentially overcome the French forwards despite Les Bleus’ eight weighing in at just over a combined 150 stones.
It should underpin an opening victory on the road and underline genuine title prospects.