Monday 18 November 2019

Winning the Grand Slam won't change me, insists Aki

Bundee Aki back in training for Connacht ahead of their Challenge Cup clash against Gloucester this weekend SEB. Photo: Sportsfile
Bundee Aki back in training for Connacht ahead of their Challenge Cup clash against Gloucester this weekend SEB. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When Bundee Aki collapsed in a heap to the Twickenham turf, and a stretcher was immediately called for, Connacht's season momentarily threatened to fully derail.

It's unfair to suggest that the Westerners are a one-man team but the fact remains that Aki is central to their hopes of making it back to the Champions Cup.

Thankfully, the hugely influential centre was well enough to walk off without the aid of the stretcher, and the sight of him heavily involved in the on-field celebrations brought a collective sigh of relief all around the west of Ireland.

"I felt good," Aki says.

"Obviously the celebrations can tell the rest of the story but I felt good after it. I was glad to come off the field all well and happy to celebrate with the boys."

Returning to the Sportsground this week has brought Aki crashing back down to earth after the high of winning a Grand Slam in what was his first Six Nations championship.

The 27-year-old is one of several players who have never lost for Ireland, but he has had little time to dwell on the remarkable success, particularly with Connacht's season on the line against Gloucester this weekend.

The Westerners' best route back to the Champions Cup is via the Challenge Cup and despite their patchy form, they will fancy themselves at home to David Humphreys' side.

Aki is in line to return on Saturday, as is another one of the Grand Slam heroes, Kieran Marmion, and they have already lifted the mood within the squad.

"Well, it's noisier, but that's a good thing," head coach Kieran Keane smiled when asked what Aki has brought back to the environment.

"It's always good to be back around Connacht, the lads that are here are really loud, like myself," Aki laughs.

"It's good to be back running on that dirty (training) pitch behind us. The puddle pitch, I guess I could say! I'm not used to it from the last eight weeks but it's good, it gets you back down to the ground."

It's certainly a different world to the plush surrounds of Carton House, and while Aki insists that he hasn't returned to the Connacht set-up as a different player, there is no question that he will have improved hugely having spent the last two months under Joe Schmidt's watch.

"I'm coming in from the Irish squad, I think the lads here have been playing together for the last eight weeks," he maintains.

"I've been away for the last eight weeks and it's not about them fitting into what I have been doing, it's about me fitting into what they are doing and making sure I add value as well.

"At the moment it feels like I'm the new player in the squad as well, there's a lot of new plays. I've got to make sure I do my homework and make sure I fit into the team this week.

"There's been a lot of hard work done. After a few celebrations, I had to make sure I had emptied some cobwebs out and get my feet back running so it's been good."

Aki was one of Ireland's unsung heroes, particularly in the how he seamlessly switched centre partners throughout the campaign.

He was the one constant in Ireland's midfield until his involvement was prematurely curtailed against England.

"Obviously it's a bit tough trying to build a relationship, but injuries do come along," Aki explains.

"You do chop and change but the way you go about it during the week is that you make sure you bond quickly. You know there is no room for error and you're making sure that you are both on the same page whoever it is your partner is.

"You have to make sure you both know how each other plays and what you expect from each other. That's the good thing about it when you change partners is that you are looking to bond together.

"It was a huge step up. Obviously playing internationals is a big step up and the Six Nations is an intense competition.

"I didn't realise how intense that competition is until you're in the squad and in the competition itself. There is a lot riding on it every week, making sure that if you want to win a Grand Slam you have to win every week.

"Being in the environment, it has been good to know what it's like to be a great player or wanting to be a great player."

Connacht will need Aki to hit the ground running this week, if they are to keep their European ambitions alive. Encouragingly for Ireland and Connacht supporters, Aki still feels like he has plenty of room for improvement

Comfortable "I wouldn't say (I feel) settled, I feel comfortable being there, but as a player you always want to improve how you want to be and how you want to play," he adds.

"It is something I'm looking forward to doing and keep improving my game.

"Winning any silverware it's great. It's a great achievement of how hard you've worked and where you've come from."

Aki hasn't taken the conventional route to the international stage, but now that he has arrived, Ireland are reaping the rewards.

Connacht will now hope that his winning mentality will help propel them back amongst Europe's elite.

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