Thursday 5 December 2019

Des Berry: 'Aki has done what few Irishmen in Connacht have and stayed there when the world was at his feet'

CELEBRATES: Bundee Aki. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
CELEBRATES: Bundee Aki. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Des Berry

It says everything about the deep connection Aki has forged for the underdog province.

"Connacht has become home to me and my family," he said, in his press release this afternoon.

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"I want to play my part in helping Connacht achieve their ambitious plans in the years to come."

When the ex-Chiefs centre arrived at Connacht in 2014 as 'a project player' with aspirations to play international rugby, it was just in time to become one-half of their 'dynamic duo' with Robbie Henshaw.

When time came for Henshaw to nail his colours to the mast at the turn of 2016, the centre chose blue over green, Leinster over Connacht.

The draw of challenging for trophies on an annual basis was too much to turn down for the Athlone man, even though, ironically, Connacht went on to beat Leinster in the PRO12 League final in May of that year.

Okay, the Westmeath minor footballer's gaelic games allegiance was to Leinster, but his loyalty in rugby resided West of the Shannon.      

In the end, Henshaw moved to Dublin to be by the side of his girlfriend and to develop his game alongside a host of Ireland internationals, most notably Jonathan Sexton.  

"To be able to learn from guys like him, Seán O'Brien, Cian Healy, guys with 60-plus caps for Ireland, will benefit me in the long term," said Henshaw back then.

"I think Johnny alone is an unbelievable player and I learn a lot from him just from being in Ireland camp. To be with him every day will be good."

The decision was tinged with the sadness of disappointing those who had invested so much time and energy into a native son.  

"There was a lot of lost sleep over it. It kind of was in my mind in advance that I would be letting people down."

When faced with the same crossroads moment, Aki has decided to go with his heart more than his head for winning would be a lot easier somewhere else.

The way the 29-year-old plays the game, nothing has ever come easy to him, from his hard-to-imagine stint as a bank official back in New Zealand to jumping hemispheres to pursue a life less ordinary.      

There is no guarantee of the Champions Cup at Connacht next season or of making the play-offs of the PRO14 League this season, never mind Europe's headline competition.

The responsibility and durability of Aki is tested every week, quite simply because opponents know the best way to close down Connacht is to shut down their main man in midfield.

Aki has done what few Irishmen in Connacht have done, that is to stay there when the world was at his feet.

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