DUBLIN (Reuters) - New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki will make his Irish debut against South Africa and in form 21-year-old Ulster winger Jacob Stockdale will be given a chance to impress as coach Joe Schmidt named a near full strength side on Thursday.
The 27-year-old Aki, who was also eligible to play for Samoa, was chosen by Schmidt at the first opportunity having played the required three years in Ireland to qualify for his newly adopted country.
In the absence of the injured Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne, the powerful 2016 Pro12 player of the season will renew his midfield partnership with former teammate Robbie Henshaw that helped Connacht to a surprise title.
“I think sometimes where you’re born is less relevant to where you’ve invested over the last period of time and I think Bundee has invested incredibly well in the west,” Schmidt told a news conference after the selection sparked some debate about the residency rule which will be extended to five years from 2020.
“Connacht have benefited from his experience, his commitment and his durability. Bundee has played an immense amount of minutes for Connacht and he rocks up and he plays week to week to week. I think sometimes it (the debate) is an unfortunate distraction.”
Stockdale made a try-scoring international debut against the United States in June but gets his opportunity to line up beside many of the frontline players who were on British and Irish Lions duty at the time after a superb start to the season.
The 1.91-metre (six foot three inches) tall winger has scored five tries in seven games for his province and joins an Irish back three missing Keith Earls who is a doubt for the rest of the November series after injuring his hamstring in training.
Earls’ Munster teammate Andrew Conway will win his fourth cap on the other wing.
In the pack, Ireland will start with seven recent and former Lions with flanker Sean O‘Brien set to win his 50th cap and prop Cian Healy getting the nod ahead of Leinster teammate Jack McGrath who has just returned to training from injury.
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
Replacements: 16-Rob Herring, 17-David Kilcoyne, 18-John Ryan, 19-James Ryan, 20-Rhys Ruddock, 21-Kieran Marmion, 22-Joey Carbery, 23-Darren Sweetnam.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise