Saturday 21 September 2019

Strength of the powerful Hercules advice packs harder punch than Schmidt

Bundee Aki with his daughter Adrianna after his Ireland debut against South Africa last November Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki with his daughter Adrianna after his Ireland debut against South Africa last November Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Even now, though he is 18,000km away in another hemisphere, Bundee Aki cannot escape from the teachings of the omnipotent Hercules.

And yet he warms to every syllable, smiling as the advice from the most learned one crosses oceans and mountains and yet loses nothing in intimacy.

His father - owner of that wondrously fabled name - has always done so. His son has not always been endeared to it.

There was a time as a kid when his father would turn up and form a cajoling chorus of eager enthusiasm on the sidelines.

"Here comes your cheerleader, Bundee!" they would gently mock as he would weakly smile.

Now he is an international rugby player, many, many miles from home but home still visits him when his father beseeches him with his own, personal post-match assessment.

"I get a phone call every Monday after the games from the old man and mum trying to tweak my game," smiles the adopted Irishman.

"(They're) just making sure that I'm doing everything right and obviously the game last week, my handling skills weren't great, so he gave me an earful on that and he was making sure I'll do it right next time."

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After the adrenalin snails to a halt and the heartbeat returns to normal, contact such as this offers a moment of serenity, a personal release from the professional hothouse.

"Aw, it's always good knowing that your parents are always trying to tweak your game. They can see a different side of it and sometimes I can slip all right... and here's another earful!"

Joe Schmidt's stern video reviews, which have been so mythologised beyond pastiche at this stage that even its creator often smiles wanly when the subject is broached, have nothing on the chats between Aki Snr and Jnr, it appears.

Still, we wonder who is the toughest critic, Joe Schmidt or Hercules Aki?

"Dad is," Aki replies immediately. "He's a very tough critic. A very tough critic. Yeah, I'm always pleased to have parents like that who are always tough on me and making sure I do well. So, yeah, it's good."

The handling errors he referred to occurred in the opening quarter against Italy - he was not solely guilty - yet, befitting his gradual improvement at Test level, his searing break and pass off the left for Keith Earls on the right wing welcomed him to the game in some style.

For one who was a scrum-half in early childhood, and so unable to pass off his right he used to swivel 180 degrees to pass off his one good hand, Aki demonstrated that there is brain, as well as brawn, in his football ability.

"The opportunity arises and you just have to make sure that you take it and deliver on it. Fair play to the lads who got the ball for us and we just took it from there and Earlsy will finish it off when you give him the opportunity.

"As a rugby player you are always learning. When I first started playing rugby that's nearly all I knew how to do: just bloody carry the ball.

"As you grow older and into the game you start learning things. There is a bit more to just bashing it up a few times. You have to distribute as well.

"You can see how England are playing with two 10s and they are playing very well at the moment. Sometimes you need to do the nitty gritty as well. Roll up the sleeves and do the dirty work as well and go straight ahead."

His first try, too, markedly reflected what he can bring to the team, particularly now with the experience of Robbie Henshaw absent and a renewal of November's midfield with Chris Farrell beckoning.

"It was a very good bonus and I was just happy enough to help out the lads by doing my job and if the try comes then you don't complain. I'll just take it and move on from there.

"You always have to feel comfortable and the same time always be on edge. You can't be complacent because there is always someone ready to take the spot.

"You can't be too comfortable. You have to be doing the right things at the right time."

His returning centre partner will test his intellectual as well as physical abilities.

"There is ownership on every individual to do everything right. I'm just as new as Chris is and we have to make sure that we put our head down and work for each other.

"If he gets the nod he is a class player. He does everything right and he is a strong, big boy.

"We had a good go together against Argentina but we are always looking to improve and move on.

"Once we get into our comfort zone and we are there as one team and doing everything right for each other and looking for the same result then boys start sharing stuff and opening up.

"We are working together as one big group and lots of mini-groups and you can see that as the weeks go on. That's a massive plus when you come in and try to find your feet.


"Whatever they want me to do I will do and when the opportunity arises to do something myself I will make sure it is for the betterment of the team and not myself."

Ireland assistant coach Andy Farrell assesses that he is wise beyond his years.

And then there is always his dad who, as usual, will rise in the middle of the night to watch his son, then sleeping once more before church.

He broke the routine once, in November, when the entire family decamped to Dublin for his international debut against South Africa.

The picture taken that day has been framed and his partner Kayla has afforded it pride of place in the Aki house.

And then the phone will ring. So many miles apart but, for those moments at least, as close as they have ever been.

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