Wednesday 7 December 2016

'It was a massive call to leave home - you can't go half-hearted' - Bundee Aki on life in Ireland

Bundee Aki's leap of faith paying off as strong family values help him play key role in Connacht's rise

Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30

‘We’re really good mates but whenever we play against each other it’s always a really tough gig,’ says the Connacht centre
‘We’re really good mates but whenever we play against each other it’s always a really tough gig,’ says the Connacht centre
Bundee Aki last faced Francis Saili in 2013, when Saili was with the Blues and Bundee Aki was playing for the Chiefs

This afternoon, Bundee Aki will be 36,543 kilometres from home but his midfield battle with Francis Saili will be a familiar affair.

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Two New Zealanders of Samoan heritage, they first lined out together in the 'Village Championships', played out between young men of the island, before crossing swords in the professional game. Although they both progressed to bigger and better things, the village games have stood Aki in good stead.

They can, the Connacht centre explains, be a little bit rough and very intense. It should serve them well for their battle in the wind and rain at Thomond Park this afternoon.

The men are now firm friends; professional rugby players for hire earning a living on the other side of the world. Saili is an All Black who still holds out hope of returning to don the Silver Fern once again, while Aki looks destined to wear the green of Ireland when his three-year residency stint is up at the end of next season.

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

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At the heart of it, however, they are fiercely proud Samoans for whom rugby is both an expression and an opportunity. They refer to each other usos, the Samoan word for brother, and as Aki explains it is a word that bonds a legion of talented players dotted around the rugby world.

"Even though those lads are on the other side of the world, we stay in contact through doing the same things," he says. "We're a band of brothers, we play against each other but everything stays on the field and once you come off the field you're all brothers."

"I've played against Francis a few times. We're really good mates but whenever we play against each other it's always a really tough gig. He's played at the top level with the All Blacks and it's always a massive challenge for myself because I've never been there.

"We played Village games together and Sevens games together; other than that in professional rugby it's always been against each other. They (the Village games) are very interesting, very rough. It's intense."

To hear Aki talk of home and family makes you realise what a big deal it was for him to leave New Zealand and throw his lot in with Connacht.

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Although their capture of Mils Muliaina captured more headlines, signing the younger Kiwi back last year caused the greater stir in rugby circles as the Westerners outbid major players in Munster and Glasgow Warriors for his services.

Pat Lam has a good track record in securing talent from his homeland, but Aki is his signature signing. His move caused a stir at home, particularly when he mentioned the prospect of representing Ireland at the end of his three-year contract in an interview before leaving.

"Pat is convincing alright. He talked about his ambitions and what he sees in Connacht and I told him I'd love to be a part of it," he recalls.

"It was a massive call, but I'm quite a religious person and I took a step by faith, you know? It's going really well at the moment. Once you make a decision, you've just got to go with it. You can't go half-hearted.

"It was difficult when I left, I had a few people come up, talking to me about it, but at the end of the day you have to do what's best for yourself, what's best for my family.

"I want to better myself and my rugby career, each day I want each thing I do to better myself and my family."

Aki has learned his lesson with regard to the national question, politely demurring when the idea of playing for Ireland is raised.

Whatever your feelings on the idea of 'special projects', there is no doubting that Aki brings plenty to the table. The 25-year-old is a complete centre, but more than that he bristles with attitude and throws himself into the task with admirable enthusiasm.

No matter who his opponent is, the Connacht star sees him as another target to fell, and his attitude can lift his team-mates around him.

"I grew up in a pretty rough area. Back at home we put everything in. I love to play with a whole heart, I hate coming off the field thinking I could have done more, that I emptied half of my tank," he explains.

"If you're going to do something, you've just got to do it with everything you have. Whether it's cleaning a ruck, picking up a poor pass, tackling, when you have those standards it lifts the boys as well.

"I treat every game the same, I just play hard and strong and try and have an impact on my team."

That area he refers to is Manukau, a working class district south of Auckland with a huge Polynesian population and a decent record of producing quality rugby players.

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"It's the area Jonah Lomu grew up in... his first club rugby was my first club rugby which is Weymouth club and his school was my rival school, that rivalry still goes on to this day," Aki explains.

"Growing up watching Jonah Lomu, he was a world class player and where we come from you don't get much opportunities, we don't get televised, we don't get media coverage.

"When boys make the most of what they have, when they put in the hard work anything can happen. Myself and (Samoa full-back) Tim Nanai-Williams come from those kind of places and you have to take your chances.

"Right now, it's improving heaps back from where we used to be. We only had one representative from our school for our province, or one representative for Super Rugby, but it's changed heaps. The boys back at home are starting to believe that if you want to make it happen, you can."

Aki readily concedes that he didn't know much about Galway when he took the plunge and committed to spending three years of his life there; he has enjoyed life in the west of Ireland, and he has found familiar conditions in the dressing-room.

Although his most recent experience was winning the Super Rugby title with the (Waikato) Chiefs, the reference point he finds for Connacht was his provincial team Counties Manukau, traditional underachievers who claimed the ITM Cup (National Provincial Championships) in 2012.

"It was a really big challenge, but our team at Counties were in a similar position, not getting the results that we wanted," he recalls.

"We kept building, a few changes came in and we started to get into winning ways.

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"I felt the same way when I came here - at training I could see that there's a lot of good players and we just needed things to click for us to start going up.

"The boys just started believing in each other at training, worked hard week in, week out and as that happens you begin to believe in yourself when you win games. We win one, we win two, we win three. . . you just keep building on that.

"When you have a culture like that when the boys get used to winning and start believing in each other."

Today, Connacht go into an interprovincial clash with Munster top of the league for the first time. The key is getting comfortable there.

"I've only been here for two years, but with the culture of the club it feels like a massive shift from last year to this," says Aki.

"Who would have thought Connacht would be top of the table? The boys are believing in each other, they know what the standards are. It didn't come by easy stuff; it all came from hard work and the boys were putting in that hard work before I came here."

Life Style Sports have launched a limited edition Connacht Green Lantern jersey that will be worn today against Munster. The Green Lantern jersey is available in adult and kids sizes exclusively from Life Style Sports, in store and online at www.LifeStyleSports.ie

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