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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