By Ed Elliot, PA, Dublin
Ireland centre Bundee Aki believes Steve Borthwick’s England will only get better after they ended a forgettable Guinness Six Nations campaign with a steely display against the Grand Slam champions in Dublin.
The Red Rose, who replaced Eddie Jones with Borthwick in December, endured another underwhelming championship, finishing fourth having lost three of their five matches for the third consecutive year.
A record-breaking round-four 53-10 humiliation against France at Twickenham was a major low for the 2019 World Cup finalists, who also suffered Calcutta Cup disappointment at home to Scotland on the opening weekend.
𝗧𝗵𝗮𝗻𝗸 𝗬𝗼𝘂 for all your incredible support over the past two months 👏#GuinnessSixNations 🌹 pic.twitter.com/e5UTa3Cng6
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 18, 2023
Yet, despite playing half of Saturday’s match at the Aviva Stadium with 14 men following a red card for Freddie Steward, England fought until the end against the world’s top-ranked side to restore some pride in a creditable 29-16 loss.
Aki backed Ireland’s rivals to emerge from a tricky transitional phase as a far stronger outfit, with the start of the World Cup less than six months away.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” he said. “We knew that England are a great team.
“Obviously they’ve had their little learning curves throughout this campaign and they can only go better. They’re a great team, they’re coached well and they’ve got unbelievable players.
“We knew they were going to come out and get us, and fair play to the boys for sticking that out.”
While Borthwick and England have plenty to ponder, Ireland’s remarkable rise continues.
British and Irish Lion Aki hailed the title-winning heroics as a career highlight and feels there is more to come.
The Connacht player also expressed hope 37-year-old Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, who is expected to retire following the World Cup, will play again in the Six Nations as he aimed a playful dig at his veteran team-mate.
“We’re creating something special and we’ve just got to grab it with two hands and go with it,” said Aki.
“It was an incredible atmosphere. I’ve never ever seen anything like it.
“It’s up there, top of the ranks. St Paddy’s weekend, Grand Slam, a few guys’ milestones, Josh Van Der Flier’s 50th (cap), Johnny – it could potentially be his last Six Nations.
“Hopefully not, hopefully he can come back again. He’s very young, 45 years of age, so he can still go again.”