Thursday 22 February 2018

Building sites to banks and becoming a dad at an early age - Bundee Aki's inspirational rags to riches story

Bundee Aki of Ireland takes a selfie with his daughter Adrianna, age 6, after South Africa match last year
Bundee Aki of Ireland takes a selfie with his daughter Adrianna, age 6, after South Africa match last year
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Bundee Aki has a suit hanging in his wardrobe at home. Perhaps, between Ireland and Connacht issue, he has a few to pick from, but this one should stand out. It would have been bought rather than handed to him; off the peg rather than tailored; and all of this done circa 2010 when he was 18. He needed it for work in the real world.

Not many of Aki's colleagues in Connacht or Ireland would have ever had to climb into something like that before, clocking in for a nine to five gig behind a desk. Fewer still would have done so in similar circumstances.

Aki was born and raised in South Auckland, to Samoan parents. Family is a big deal to Pacific islanders. Starting a family before you are ready to provide for one, however, is not quite the tradition. So Bundee was in a spot of bother.

To complicate the issue, he had been offered a place in Truro School in Cornwall. Putting a pin on the map where Cornwall was, never mind Truro — a posh school with a track record in rugby — would have been a challenge.

Why Truro? Well, the rugby network being what it is, a man from that part of the world knew a man in the Counties Manakau age-grade set-up, where Aki was an up-and-coming player, and things were set in motion. Aki didn't grow up in Auckland's equivalent of Beverly Hills. The prospect of taking off to the other end of the world for a year or two of expenses-paid education, with rugby prospects, was worth exploring.

"Our age-grade Counties coach said he'd been asked for a few players that would be keen, players that would do well," he recalls. "And yeah, he mentioned a few of us and I was lucky enough — the only one — to go. So yeah it was good.

"When I got there, there were two other guys that arrived I think a year or two before I did. Kyle Armstrong, he played for Canada age groups, he was a half-back. And Josh Matavesi, who's over at Newcastle now. So we all went to school together in Truro. Me and Kyle were living with Ricky Pellow, who's the backs coach for Exeter Chiefs at the moment. So yeah, it worked out pretty well. The rugby was really good. I played Cornwall age groups — and I loved the old Cornish pasties."

He was settling in nicely when news from home demanded action. His girlfriend of the time was carrying his child. An unplanned development.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "Yeah, it was pretty emotional at that time, and my family is obviously a big family of churchgoers and stuff like that. It's not a good look when you get someone pregnant. Like 'ah jeez . . .'"

So how did he deal with breaking this bit of good news to his folks?

"I didn't even tell my mum! I told my older sister. And I just said, 'Look I can't tell mum over the phone, can you talk to her and call me back?' And before you knew it my mum called me and I didn't even get the chance to talk. I was pretty much holding the phone about a metre away from me — you could hear her shouting through the phone! Yeah, it was pretty tough at that time. So back at home they expected me to come back and work and provide for my family — which was fine."

So long Truro, Cornish pasties and the possibility that Aki could have ended up in England's system rather than New Zealand's. Back home he first got some labouring work, in keeping with his new responsibilities. Then, through a contact in Counties, the door opened to a job in the bank. It's hard to imagine Bundee Aki sitting patiently behind a desk all day, but the way he tells it he eased his way from one way of life into another.

"I was 112/113kgs at that time," he says.

I was pretty heavy then. At the time I think you get so comfortable you don't really think about rugby — you're very comfortable where you are and what you're doing and you sort of just watch rugby as you see it — I didn't forget about rugby but I didn't pay attention to it much.

"The only time I did was when your parents are next to you and she's (his mum) yelling in your ear: 'Look at all those guys you played with and you're sitting here doing nothing!' I was 18. Then I had another kid a year after that with my partner now."

A contract with the Chiefs put Aki in the shop window. His timing was good, picking up a Super Rugby medal in 2013 — the second of their back-to-back wins under current Glasgow coach, Dave Rennie. Then he was off to the northern hemisphere again, a bit further this time, where fellow Kiwi/Samoan Pat Lam was putting Connacht on the map.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen's nose was out of joint when he got the news, for if the trend of veteran All Blacks cashing in up north was bad enough then it was a deal worse for the next generation to be jumping ship before they had even worn black.

"My family comes from a very poor background," Aki explains. "We don't get much at home, so you have to make the most of the opportunities you get. When it happens, you think: this opportunity may never come again. When I got the offer from Connacht, I was like: 'Look, this is an opportunity for myself and my family to explore the other side of the world and at least I know that when I do finish my rugby career, I got the chance to travel a bit.' That's how we saw it and my family was pretty happy with the move."

So, having left the ABs behind, it wasn't long before Aki was being pitched into the Ireland frame. From the off he was a huge success in Connacht. There were a lot of moving parts in their Pro12 title win, but the machine would have jammed long before getting to Edinburgh had it not been for their star turn at centre.

It was awkward though. His candidacy coincided with the gathering momentum to change the ludicrously loose World Rugby regulation allowing just three years' residency to qualify for another country.

"A year and a half after I got here, Joe (Schmidt) spoke to me (but) I like to keep things to myself, to keep my goals to myself or within the family, not to share stuff. Joe did ask me if I was keen to play for Ireland and I said yes. He said you've just got make sure you do the hard work. I said if I'm good enough, you'll pick me. If I'm not, that's fine by me."

By way of defusing his being represented as a plastic Paddy, Aki spoke about understanding where critics were coming from, that he couldn't just rock up and claim to be Irish. And it was misinterpreted by some who thought he had no interest in representing this country.

"Yeah, I think people did get the wrong end of the stick with that. What I meant was that I didn't want to disrespect the boys who grew up here and always dreamt of playing for Ireland. I didn't want to disrespect them by coming in and saying, ‘Pick me!' Because you're a foreigner, people can expect you to play well and maybe they look closer at you than guys who are from Ireland. I think people took it wrong but that's what I meant. Ireland has welcomed me with open arms and I feel just as privileged to wear that jersey as the players who wore it before me. I'm relaxed about it because it was a long road to get where I am now. It's a relief to know that you can compete at the highest level."

If a November series was stage one then the Six Nations is a few rungs higher up the ladder. All concerned have told him to prepare for that greater intensity. But all the signs suggest he will be able to cope, mostly because for Bundee Aki all this is a bonus. And he is reminded of it every time he sees that suit still hanging in his wardrobe.

"Yeah, it's been a long road," he says. "It's good. To be successful, you've got to have a lot of setbacks. When you learn from your mistakes and how you can improve as a person, it can take you a long way."

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