Friday 22 February 2019

Sinead Kissane: 'No ordinary week for 'exceptional' Aki as he sidesteps Kiwi criticism to hold the centre for Ireland'

 

'The first people Aki rang when he found out that he was in the Ireland squad last autumn were his parents, Hercules and Sautia, back in New Zealand.' Photo: Sportsfile
'The first people Aki rang when he found out that he was in the Ireland squad last autumn were his parents, Hercules and Sautia, back in New Zealand.' Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Before the Ireland players collected their medals and the Six Nations trophy on the pitch at Twickenham last March, they gathered in a huddle around Bundee Aki.

With Aki the ring-leader, the players did a version of a Samoan clapping song which stems from a tradition of everyone sitting around together at home and clapping to a crescendo.

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This was a ritual Aki introduced to the Ireland camp in his first Six Nations after doing something similar in Connacht the year they won the Pro12 title in 2016.

"The senior lads said something at the beginning of the campaign, to finish off training and games with our initiations. I think fair play to them for accepting what I brought in," Aki told me in an interview a week later.

"Over here in Connacht, I did it the year that we won but in the Samoan language. But for this particular campaign, we did it in Irish".

It's been a year since Bundee (full name Bundellu) Aki made his international debut. But this has been no ordinary week for him. As he stood for the official Ireland team photograph at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, he wore a smile for the cameras like everyone else.

He's not the first player to be in the position he's in today: a New Zealand-born player coming up against the country of his birth in a Test game for Ireland.

The first people Aki rang when he found out that he was in the Ireland squad last autumn were his parents, Hercules and Sautia, back in New Zealand.

"I rang them up in the middle of the night and all they did was cry," Aki said in an interview in 'Hot Press' in February. "We had a prayer over the phone and then I let them back to sleep."

To try and understand the magnitude of today's occasion for Aki is to also remind ourselves of the pulling power of the All Black jersey and the environment New Zealand kids grow up in.

This week Beauden Barrett recalled how he felt like "superman, making tackles I'd never made before" in his debut match and "it was the power of that black jersey", which is the kind of juice which constantly oils the magic and myth of the All Black jersey.

It's not just New Zealanders who feed into this. "The crucial factor is, to be an All Black and play for New Zealand is just more important than a Frenchman playing for France," former France scrum-half Pierre Berbizier said in 'The Jersey: The Secrets Behind The World's Most Successful Team'.

With such a force-field around playing for New Zealand, what is the opposite like - playing against the Black jersey when it is the country of your birth?

New Zealand hooker Dane Coles described as "weird" the experience of playing against his former team-mate and friend Brad Shields at Twickenham last Saturday.

Shields declared to play for England (the country of birth of his parents) as opposed to New Zealand. During the haka, Coles found a way of making his feelings known to Shields.

"I didn't take my eyes off him, I found him, and I just looked straight at him and we locked eyes the whole haka," Coles said.

Eyes have been locked on Aki from the start of the week. 'New Zealand Herald' journalist Gregor Paul described Aki's move to Connacht as carrying a "cold, clinical, calculating element to it that probably ended up with Kiwis wondering more about the motives and thinking of the Irish Rugby Union than it did about the player."

It's ok for a double-think here - you don't need to agree with the various guises of the residency rule to also agree that players like Aki were just playing by the rules and trying to better their career. Paul went further.

"An Irish team that wins suddenly starts to look like an Irish-fusion team, with the Kiwi element within it no longer viewed as happy-go-lucky opportunists, but men who have stabbed their homeland in the back," Paul wrote.

Stabbed their homeland in the back?

Then there was New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster's comment on Tuesday: "You have moulded him (Aki) into an Irish man, he looks like an Irish man now doesn't he?" You don't need to reach into the backwash of that comment to be left wondering just what exactly Foster meant by that jibe.

On Thursday, Joe Schmidt was strong on the reins in effectively calling out the hypocrisy in the questioning of Ireland's recruitment policy compared to New Zealand's. "It's like asking was Jerome Kaino 100 per cent ready to play for the All Blacks, because he was born in a foreign country, or Chris Masoe, or Joe Rokocoko; or any of those guys," Schmidt argued.

"So having coached all those guys, they were very ready to play for the All Blacks. And I know that Bundee Aki is very ready to play for us in this weekend's fixture."

One team-mate who knows what it's like to come up against the country of his birth had a word of caution for Aki.

"I think he's been exceptional. There's no real change in him because he always brings that energy," CJ Stander said. "I think if you let the emotion get to you, sometimes, you're going to be in trouble. I know Bundee is a guy that can control that quite well. He knows he has to be in the system".

It seems Aki has learned to control his emotion. The man who first taught him how to play in the centre and who got him back playing rugby after he started working in a bank in Auckland in order to support his family, admitted Aki "was a bit of a firecracker" when he was younger.

"Bundee will agree in his younger days, with the energy you talk about, sometimes it was channelled down the wrong ways," Tana Umaga said about his former protégé. "This great game of ours was able to give him a pathway in terms of being able to achieve."

Constant In his debut season for Ireland, Aki quickly became a constant in Schmidt's team. In Ireland's 11 Tests last season, Aki started nine.

He didn't play against Fiji last November and didn't make the squad for the second Test against Australia last June when Schmidt elected to go with Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.

Ringrose was injured for the third Test so Aki was back in. He proved his durability and reliability in the Six Nations with Henshaw and Chris Farrell all unfortunate to pick up injuries with Aki combining with Ringrose for the last two games. Aki assumed a senior role in the centre which belied his international inexperience.

Aki may not have the coterie of silky skills like the footwork and passing of Ringrose and Henshaw but he helps to glue this team together.

"I think his communication on the field is phenomenal. He's just non-stop talking," Keith Earls said this week. "He makes the game easier for the lads he's playing with."

In James Kerr's 'Legacy', which is a homage to the All Blacks, one of the lessons in leadership seems particularly apt for Aki: it's ritualise to actualise, in other words, create a culture.

Whether he does it through his actions and communication on the pitch or the little rituals he does with the team to strengthen their bond off the pitch, Aki has helped to hold the centre for Ireland.

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