MAYNOOTH, Ireland – New Zealand-born Bundee Aki makes his Test debut for adopted country Ireland on Saturday in their one-off Test with South Africa after coach Joe Schmidt unveiled his starting XV on Thursday.
The 27-year-old centre – who qualified under the residency rule in October – is reunited with former Connacht teammate Robbie Henshaw, with whom he formed an effective partnership when their province won the then-PRO12 trophy in 2016.
Aki – who also won the Super Rugby title with the Chiefs in 2013 – gets the nod as Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne are both injured.
Schmidt deflected criticism of Aki being selected, saying: “Sometimes where you are born is less relevant than where you have invested over recent years, and Bundee has done that in the west for Connacht.
“He has played an immense amount of rugby for them. I think it (the debate over selection) is an immense distraction, and I feel sorry for Bundee and hope he isn’t distracted by that.”
Aki is the only full debutant, though 21-year-old Ulster wing Jacob Stockdale gets to make his home debut, having played two Tests on the tour of the United States and Japan earlier this year.
Stockdale gets his chance against more prestigious opposition, with the experienced Simon Zebo having been omitted from the squad after he agreed a lucrative move to a Top 14 side, thought to be French club Racing 92.
Another inexperienced wing, Andrew Conway, wins his fourth cap as his Munster teammate, veteran Keith Earls, sustained a hamstring injury.
“Keith picked up a hamstring injury on Tuesday and will certainly struggle for the game against Fiji and the week after against Argentina. He is very disappointed, and so are we,” said Schmidt.
The rest of the side – several of whom played in the 2-1 series loss in South Africa last year – is packed with experience.
The formidable halfback partnership of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton come together for the first time since the British and Irish Lions drawn series with New Zealand.
South Africa-born CJ Stander – who was sent off in the first Test against his former compatriots last year – forms an all-Lions loose trio, while evergreen hooker Rory Best skippers the side.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Bench: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 James Ryan, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Darren Sweetnam.