Sunday 25 February 2018

Swift backing Aki to become 'one of best in the world' in Irish midfield

Connacht's Bundee Aki. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Connacht's Bundee Aki. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Former Connacht lock Michael Swift always believed Bundee Aki was destined for an international call-up from the time he arrived at the Sportsground.

Swift spent his final season at the Sportsground while Aki was playing in his first for Connacht in 2014-'15, and he says that although the New Zealander kept his cards close to his chest, Ireland was always the likely choice.

The 27-year-old, who made his debut away to Ospreys in October 2014, won PRO14 Player of the Year when Connacht won the league in 2015-'16 and he has played 66 times for the province, scoring nine tries.

The ex-Waikato Chiefs centre could have played for the All Blacks or Samoa but having become Irish-qualified on residency after three years in country, Aki was called up to Ireland camp by Joe Schmidt earlier this season and Swift says he knew it was coming.

"There was great excitement when he first came to Connacht. Mils Muliaina had arrived the year before but Bundee's signing was a big sign of intent of the direction Connacht were heading," he said.

Culture

"He did struggle when he first got here, with the new culture, the different weather conditions and he was on his own. His family coming over made a massive difference and he never looked back.

"He became a real changing-room favourite. He was a real motivator and he grew into his role in the leadership group when I was gone. Pat Lam gave him more responsibility and it was a huge benefit for Bundee, on and off the pitch.

"Joe Schmidt was always making the effort to go to Connacht and be involved with the province. He was having conversations with Bundee and the call-up was always coming.

"International games are the ultimate and if Bundee can produce some of the form he has shown with Connacht over the last few years there, then in a year or two he could one of the best in the world. His offloading is second to none, and what most people wouldn't realise is he is deceptively fast. For a big unit he can really shift and I am looking forward to seeing him in an Irish jersey.

"He is a Connacht man through and through now and he deserves his chance."

Lock Ultan Dillane and scrum-half Kieran Marmion are the two other Connacht players selected in the 38-man Ireland squad to face South Africa, Fiji and Argentina.

Swift says Aki could be parachuted straight into the starting 15, where he could link up with former team-mate Robbie Henshaw once again.

"The year Connacht won the league Bundee was phenomenal and his partnership with Robbie was one of the best in Europe at the time and the two really fed off each other," said Swift.

Irish Independent

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