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'I miss home, I miss the food, but I am enjoying life out west'

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Stacey Ili grew up playing basketball – and his brother plays for New Zealand. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Stacey Ili grew up playing basketball – and his brother plays for New Zealand. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Stacey Ili grew up playing basketball – and his brother plays for New Zealand. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

The Galway cuisine isn't the same as back home, but a few guilty pleasures help Stacey Ili keep his mind off Auckland, as he looks to make this town his own.

The 25-year-old has never lived so far from New Zealand, and since he left home last September he has missed the simple things.

Ili grew up in Mangere Bridge, Auckland and played rugby from a young age, but basketball was his first love.

Ili has played 12 times for Connacht and scored three tries since his arrival, and his versatility has been a huge asset for head coach Pat Lam during another injury-hit campaign.

Connacht have suffered a poor season, and they are struggling to qualify for next season's Champions Cup, but Ili's capture was a coup.

He has added so much to the side, and his European hat-trick against Zebre at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi shows he has the devastating finishing that caught Lam's eye in the first place.

Ili certainly hasn't let anyone down since he came to Galway. If only the same could be said for the food. But there are one or two outlets that keep Ili ticking over.

"I always get home-sick. Galway is nothing like home. I didn't know what to expect when I came here but I have really enjoyed my time all the same," he says.

"This is my first time living this far away from home for such a long time. But I am over here with my partner, Ramise. She lives with me and that helps a lot.

"I will definitely go home to visit in the summer. I miss home, and I miss the food. My favourite over there, if I just wanted a snack, I would probably eat a meat pie.

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"I like pancakes here, though. I shouldn't be eating them but they are the go-to, or Supermac's. But I haven't had it in a while. If I do I would order a Lunch Box, and one of the bacon cheeseburgers all at once."

Ili played ITM Cup rugby for Auckland, and he also featured in the Sevens code before he was snapped up by coach Lam after the start of this season.

His versatility carries through every facet of his life, and the former Manukau Rovers clubman is desperate to get back out on the basketball court as well.

"Just growing up in New Zealand everyone played rugby so you naturally joined in and played with them," he explains.

"I have playing since I was about five. When I was in school I actually played rugby just for fun, because I was playing a lot of basketball.

"I grew up playing basketball. My brother, Shea, plays for the New Zealand team.

"I always watch the NBA, I have got the NBA League Pass. But I can't really find a hoop around here to play. The hoops are never out on the courts."

Opportunity

It's another reason for Ili to miss home, but that doesn't mean he didn't jump at the opportunity to join Connacht when Lam came calling.

"I got a call from Pat. He was just talking to me saying they were looking for a player that could cover a few positions. That was right up my alley," says Ili.

"He gave me a call and we talked for a bit. I was keen to move, go and experience something else rather than just staying put."

And since he linked up with Connacht, Ili has expanded his rugby CV and his game has gone from strength to strength - particularly his defence.

Ili believes Lam has had a massive impact on his game, and thinks he is the type of coach who can improve anyone's game if they work with him.

"He has given me confidence in my game, and really helped me with my skills," he says.

"A lot of the other boys that have been here since he started say that too. A few of them advanced to play international, which shows how good a coach Pat is."

But at the end of this campaign Ili will have to start afresh, and look to impress another new coach when Kieran Keane comes in from the Waikato Chiefs to take the reins.

Despite having never worked under Keane, he understand what's coming down the line: another genuine rugby brain, with brilliant ideas that will help Connacht improve further.

"Unfortunately I haven't worked with him before," says Ili. "I know who he is, but I have never met him.

"I have got a couple of mates who played for Tasman when he was coaching them, so I will ask them about him.

"But most New Zealand coaches are like that. We won't find out what he is like until he gets here and we really see what his game-plan is, and what he has in store for us."

In the meantime Ili and his Connacht team-mates have a massive job on their hands as they look to secure Champions Cup rugby for next term.

Last weekend's defeat at the hands of Glasgow Warriors means the Zebre game has all the more significance. But Ili is just delighted to be playing regularly at this stage of the season.

"I am happy just trying to get on the field, it's getting pretty hard with the competition for spots on the team," he says. "Everyone is coming back from injury, training is getting hard.

"I'm a competitive person, it's natural for me to want to do better. And I'm really looking forward to this. There is a big block of games coming up, and these four games will determine where we end up.

"Everyone is getting healthy now and everyone is putting pressure on each other to play better, and pushing for positions to make that 23. All the boys are helping each other so it's good."

Irish Independent