Thursday 24 October 2019

Critics entitled to opinions but I'm proud to play for Ireland - Bundee Aki on project player controversy

Bundee Aki. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Bundee Aki isn't hiding the fact he knows he's been in the news.

As he approaches a collection of Irish journalists at the back of a cramped media room on the 24th floor of Ireland's hotel in Chiba, the 20-times capped Connacht centre says 'Is this The Left Wing?'

He's referring to Independent.ie's podcast on which Luke Fitzgerald last week criticised the idea of New Zealand-born Aki winning the selection battle ahead of Garry Ringrose, calling him "a blow-in".

The former Ireland back has been a vocal critic of the soon-to-be-defunct residency rule under which Aki qualified for Ireland and, while he says pundits are entitled to their opinion, the centre is determined to show he merits the call-up.

"When I first came over my ambition was to play at an international level, but obviously it's never a given," he said of his move to Connacht in 2014.

"It was such a hard decision to move over with my family but Ireland has welcomed me with open arms.

"I had to put in the hard work, put in week-by-week performances.

"Some people won't be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey, but I felt like playing for this country, putting in the hard work, anything can happen. I got all I could ask for."

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Asked if the criticism bothered him, Aki said: "People have their own opinions, which is fair. They're more than able to have their own opinion. That's how they think and how they approach it. I highly respect them for that and I've got nothing towards them.

"All I've got to do is just make sure I put in a performance and do what I can do, and that's just to perform on the field, and that's all I can ask for.

"Hopefully, I do myself proud, my teammates proud, my family proud and, most of all, the country proud. That's all I can do realistically.

"Connacht have supported me from day one when I first arrived and Galway, everyone knows how friendly they are and are such good people. I call it my home at the moment and I'm sure people will feel like I'm one of them as well."

With Robbie Henshaw set to miss Sunday's opening game of the World Cup against Scotland, Aki is certain to start, with Garry Ringrose his most likely partner.

Although he was one of many to under-perform at Twickenham in Ireland's record defeat to England, the 29-year-old bounced back with strong displays against Wales and looks to be in the shape of his life.

"I have shed a few kilos, but that's just me losing a bit of fat that I've had for a few years," he said with a smile.

"I've been enjoying the Supermacs a bit too much. Pre-season has been tough, the weather, the conditioning stuff that Jayo (Cowman) has been doing with Rhys Ruddock's brother, Ciaran, has been unbelievably good going into this World Cup.

"I'm just happy that I've lost a few fats and have less to carry, which makes it easier to play on the field."

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