Saturday 7 December 2019

Neil Francis: 'With options to be procured, Bundee Aki's equation is money over the buzz of international rugby'

Bundee Aki
Bundee Aki
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On October 5, Australia played Uruguay in a World Cup Group D game at the Oita Stadium. A 45-10 victory for the Wallabies against the South American amateurs told you that not all was well in the Australian camp.

In the inane meanderings of what constituted a post-match interview, I just couldn’t find the TV remote quickly enough to switch it off before it eventually became one of the most revealing interviews of the World Cup.

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Tevita Kuridrani, the Australian centre, had won the man-of-the-match award and he thanked God and the tea lady in equal measure. Kuridrani’s interviewer then said: "And finally, have you got anyone here or at home that you want to say hi to?"

"Yes," came the reply. "I’d like to send a message to my village back home in Fiji, so I will say something in Fijian."

I don’t speak Fijian and had no idea what he said, but this was a remarkable declaration and a damning indictment on the international game.

Kuridrani, at the time of the interview, was wearing the Australia jersey after playing for the Wallabies. There were still thousands of Australian supporters in the ground and many more watching the broadcast Down Under.

Who did Tevita think he was representing? The people of Australia or the people of the village of Namatakula? If your first thoughts for the people at home are for those in that village, then you should be wearing a Fiji jersey.

Prior to the Uruguay game, Australia played Fiji on September 21, a match in which they again were unimpressive. In that game, Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi started for Australia.

The Australian-Fijians both scored a try each that day. The Fijian-Fijians also scored two tries that afternoon. There were four Fiji passport holders playing for Australia at the 2019 World Cup.

Koroibete played Rugby League for Fiji between 2013 and 2015, but if you change code to Rugby Union that means you can play for Australia.

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Tevita Kuridrani

At a rugby lunch in Suva, Fiji shortly after the World Cup, Samu Kerevi talked about his move from the Queensland Reds to Suntory Sungoliath in Tokyo for a figure not too far south of $1 million.

Kerevi, as blissfully unaware as Kuridrani of how damaging his remarks would be, stated that he would dearly like to play for his home country (Fiji) in the 2023 World Cup in France. He later claimed that his comments were taken out of context.

I have a joke on my phone showing a picture of a stationary blue wheelie bin. Written on the front of the bin are the words 'I identify as a green bin'. Dream it or think it and it shall be so!

It is clear that none of the Fijians currently playing for Australia identify as Australians. Money, not national identity, seems to be the over-riding concern.

Kerevi, heading off to Japan aged only 26 with 29 Australian caps in his pocket, will have attracted a hefty premium on his fee for being a current Wallaby as opposed to a Fiji international. He will never play for Australia again. It doesn’t seem to bother him.

As we speak, there are a number of Irish contract negotiations going on. Kieran Marmion managed to get a new three-year deal with Connacht. Quite how interested Nigel Wray of Saracens was in acquiring Marmion is open to debate.

Another Connacht player’s contract is up next summer and it is a matter of great interest where Bundee Aki plays his rugby the following season.

Before Aki signed his existing three-year contract with Connacht, Munster tried to nab him, which was naughty. Bordeaux also had an interest in him. This time around there will be considerably more interest in Aki.

Shaun Longstaff, Aki’s agent, was able to lure Simon Zebo away from Thomond Park for some very decent money.

Negotiations centre on a national contract. Aki will be 30 when his current deal expires and is unlikely to be around for the 2023 World Cup, which starts in September of that year.

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Kieran Marmion

The bones of an offer would be a two-year deal worth in the region of €400k per annum. What is there to think about?

The issue here is that once you hit 30, depending on your injury profile, you really only have three years left. The equation is money over the buzz of international rugby.

There are five French clubs in need of a quality centre and they have the money to pay for one. Japan is also in play, as we have seen with Kerevi. The Japanese teams can pay up to $1million. That sort of dough is irresistible.

Where does that leave Aki? Longstaff should be able to procure three options – all attractive given Aki’s stock is high.

A mega deal in Japan and Aki moves to Japan for the money and never plays again for Ireland. A very lucrative deal in France and Aki moves to France, but he is only two hours away and this tests the home-based player rule.

My view on this is unequivocal. Once you are not playing your rugby on the island of Ireland, you make yourself ineligible to play for Ireland.

It would also be unethical for Ireland to pick a New Zealand-born Samoan who moved to Ireland to avail of the residency rule and then breaks all ties by decamping to France. You could not, in all practice or conscience, award him another Irish cap.

The third option is that he will sign a central contract.

This, given all of Aki’s history, is what I expect him to do.

However, the player will have to listen to his family, his agent and the people he represents when he puts on a green jersey.

A lot of decisions to make. No pressure then!

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