Sunday 4 December 2016

Quest for perfection keeps Kiwi centre on right track

Former Chiefs dangerman's class rubs off on everyone as midfield partners thrive in his company

Daragh Small

Published 27/11/2015 | 02:30

Connacht’s Bundee Aki is equally adept at 12 and 13
Connacht’s Bundee Aki is equally adept at 12 and 13

Eight wins from nine, and top of the Pro12 table and their Challenge Cup pool, Connacht have nearly been flawless in 2015-'16.

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Right at the heart of their drive to the summit is centre Bundee Aki - he has played every minute of their league campaign apart from his two yellow cards, and he also started both European games this term.

He dotted down just once, but the significance of his second-half try, and the display that went with it, in the win away to Ospreys cannot be understated.

The 25-year-old from Manurewa in South Auckland came to Connacht last season with a massive reputation, and he is starting to look like the real deal now.

His form wasn't far off the mark when he first arrived either, and were it not for a horribly-timed ankle injury last January, Connacht might be operating off a Champions Cup platform.

But the ruptured syndesmosis he picked up in the season-defining 16-13 defeat at home to Edinburgh was the beginning of the end for Connacht's hopes of automatic qualification via the Pro12.

He didn't return until April 11 for their clash with Ulster. Connacht were already out of the Challenge Cup, and that 27-20 defeat to Neil Doak's men effectively ended their automatic route through the Pro12.

But Aki is back fit now, and it is no coincidence that Rory Parata, Craig Ronaldson, Peter Robb and Robbie Henshaw have all sparkled when matched-up with him in the Connacht midfield. This weekend Aki will need to strike up the perfect combination again.

The former Chiefs man will face his biggest test against Munster and has the potential to pit himself against a two-time All Black.

Challenge

"Francis Saili is playing really well at the moment. He didn't get picked for the All Blacks for no reason. As you can see, he is doing really well for Munster," he said.

"It is just going to be more of a challenge for us against them, and more of a challenge for myself. I love challenges, I love playing against good players, and challenging myself to their standards."

Aki too could have worn the famous black jersey, but instead he chose to leave his Super Rugby career behind him in 2014-'15. Playing with the Chiefs, he claimed the ultimate prize when they beat Brumbies 27-22 for back-to-back Super Rugby titles in his debut season.

Aki also starred for Counties Manukau Steelers in the ITM Cup and when it was announced that Sonny Bill Williams was returning to the Chiefs, he saw Pat Lam's Connacht as an ideal way out.

Aki came to the west as a project player on a three-year deal. It was a massive coup for Connacht, but a huge loss for New Zealand rugby, and he says he has no regrets.

"I haven't regretted anything. When you make a decision to leave, or in life in general, you have to go with it. You can't go half-hearted like that. You have to put your whole mind behind what you are doing.

"That is what I have done. I have come here believing that I can do well. Obviously hopefully I am on the right track. I am just going to take it day by day, week by week and keep performing to the best of my ability."

Aki could have played for New Zealand and Samoa - his parents are both from Samoa - before he chose to come north. When he joined Connacht he spoke about the potential to wear the Irish jersey in the future, but he isn't getting side-tracked just yet.

"I haven't really thought about anything like that. I said that before I left New Zealand, but during the time I have been here I haven't really thought about any internationals stuff. I have only just finished my first year, I'm only going into my second. I still have a long way to go.

"All I want to do is just play really well for Connacht. Things will just take care of itself. Obviously at the end of the day everyone wants to play international rugby but first things first, you have got to play week in, week out.

"You have got to play consistent and everyone's playing really well, and I have to step up my game now too. I am not thinking about any internationals. At the moment I just want to play really well for Connacht."

But another big display against an accomplished Munster side tomorrow and heads will continue to turn towards the Connacht midfield. Robbie Henshaw is the man of the moment, but Aki is hot on his heels, as the next big thing.

Equally adept at both 12 and 13, he isn't bothered about where he slots in, as long his the team reaches their destiny - the game-time is an added bonus.

"I want to play week in, week out, and perform consistently. Try and get these wins that we need, and try and help out the boys.

"We are gelling really well at the moment, and just starting to get into our groove. The real challenge is to try and be consistent in how we play.

"I enjoy playing with anyone that I am partnered up with here. Earlier in the year it was Rory Parata, who came straight out of the academy, and he is doing really well.

"Then it was Craig, and now obviously Robbie is coming back in. There is a lot of competition going on, and it makes it a lot tougher for myself, and for the other lads trying to get into the starting jerseys.

"That is what we need in our team, everyone trying to fight for a jersey which is healthy for us. If you don't play well someone can take your jersey."

Irish Independent

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