Sunday 25 February 2018

Ireland jersey on the horizon for Connacht talisman Bundee Aki

Bundee Aki acknowledges Connacht supporters after the win over Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Bundee Aki acknowledges Connacht supporters after the win over Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Bundee Aki found Francis Saili in the middle of the Sportsground pitch last Saturday night and kneelt to pray, it was hard not to wonder what was going through the two New Zealand-raised Samoans' heads.

Here they both were, as far away from home as the rugby world gets, experiencing very different sides of the overseas signing experience.

Aki has been arguably the best player in the Guinness Pro12 this season and has come to embody Pat Lam's Connacht, bristling with attacking intent and a refusal to take a backwards step.

Saili, meanwhile, often looks a bewildered presence in a Munster team that has struggled all season to produce. Recruited specifically to add stardust and line-breaking ability to a backline shorn of size and creativity last season, he is the only All Black in Irish rugby right now, but it is the uncapped former Waikato Chief who has stolen the headlines this season.


Both men are capable of stunning moments of individual brilliance, but Saili's - like Casey Laulala's before him - can appear at odds with what's going on around him, while Aki's team-mates always seem ready for what comes next.

After the win on Saturday, Lam revealed that his only trip home to New Zealand since he arrived in Galway in 2013 was to meet with Aki and Tom McCartney to convince them to throw in their lot with a team they'd never heard of on the other side of the world.

They were signed with a plan in mind and Aki in particular has become the darling of the Clan Terrace since his arrival.

In autumn 2017, both men will become Irish qualified through residency, and one of David Nucifora's challenges in the coming year will be to work alongside Connacht to hold on to a project player who looks capable of having a similar impact as CJ Stander.

Aki has a loose streak that sees him annoy referees that is unlikely to impress Joe Schmidt, but the good by far outweighs the bad.

For now, the 26-year-old remains unqualified for Ireland and an unqualified success for Lam.

Although the IRFU are trying to move away from the provinces being overly reliant on overseas signings, they remain critical to success in both competitions.

Munster's recruits have been blighted by injury, but their decision to restructure and hire a director of rugby is a tacit admission that their recruitment needs improving.

The arrival of All Black Charles Piutau in Belfast this summer will challenge this assertion, but right now Aki is the most influential overseas player on this island. Ruan Pienaar has been the standard-bearer, but has admitted that he has struggled to hit the heights this season.

With no international distractions, the Connacht talisman has even helped ease the gloom about the prospect of Robbie Henshaw's departure for the east coast, where he'll replace another Samoan making a big impact in the increasingly impressive Ben Te'o.

Aki may be a foreigner, but in Galway he is recognised as one of their own as his coach enthused on Saturday.

"He's a Connacht man," said Lam. "You can truly say that. He's embraced this whole area, he's embraced the province. Pacific Islanders, everything is around family and extended family, and it doesn't need to be blood.

"It needs to be the people you care about and Bundee always talks about his brothers here. You see that side, but I see him pushing guys really hard. He gets in their faces at training, he's physical, he wants high standards.

"He's a big leader off the field. He can enjoy himself a lot too, socially, but certainly he's got a lot of respect for these guys. He always pumps his chest because he loves this place."

Next season, he will get to wear his heart on his sleeve on a bigger stage in Europe, while 2017 offers even greater opportunities if Aki can be convinced to remain in Ireland.

For now, the focus is on overcoming the injury that forced him off last Saturday and finishing this campaign on the highest of highs. Week by week, the doubters fall by the wayside. With Aki in their midfield, you get the sense Connacht can achieve anything.

Irish Independent

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