Thursday 17 October 2019

'Leader' Bundee Aki's journey comes full circle as he faces Samoa, the land of his mother and father

Bundee Aki during Ireland Rugby squad training at Shirouzuoike Park in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki during Ireland Rugby squad training at Shirouzuoike Park in Fukuoka, Japan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Born in Auckland to Samoan parents, Samoa has always been part of Bundee Aki's identity and the centre will come full circle when he lines up against the Siva Tau war dance before taking on his 'brothers' Saturday.

Recruited by Connacht and the IRFU in 2014 as a potential Ireland international, the 29-year-old has become a leading player for his adopted nation, while also a lightning rod for critics of the three-year residency law.

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Perhaps as a result, Aki has been reluctant to delve into questions over his heritage and identity; preferring to let his abrasive play do the talking.

Ultra-committed, he is a remarkably durable member of Joe Schmidt's set-up. Only Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy (23 each) have featured more than Aki's 22 caps in the 27 he's been available for.

He's had a revolving door of centre partners, but he has always stepped up to the plate even if his last outing against Russia wasn't his best by his own admission.

"From a coach's point of view, his resilience and ability to be able to play every week," assistant coach Richie Murphy said today of Aki's contribution.

"We've had a situation where himself, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Chris Farrell have been fighting it out for those positions, but Bundee is the one probably guy who has been available most of the time.

"It's been fantastic to have him, he's come into the group and fitted in really well.

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"He loves living down in Galway, he's a big part of the community down there but within the group he's taken a big stride on this year and is getting into leadership roles.

"Driving the team both on and off the pitch."

Aki wasn't put up for media today after being named, but before the Russia game he was asked about the prospect of taking on Samoa.

And he said will fall back on his experience of playing against the All Blacks in 2018 as he prepares for the match.

"That would be a proud moment, if I do get to that stage," he said.

"But I would treat it exactly the same as the way I focused on playing against New Zealand as well.

"I've just got to try and focus on what I can do best for the team first, and we'll see how we go this week and hopefully I can help the team put in a good performance."

On Wednesday night, Aki dined with members of the Samoan squad including his close friend Tim Nanai Wiliams, a former team-mate at Counties Manukau and cousin of Sonny Bill Williams.

Before Ireland's opening game, he visited the Samoans at their near-by team hotel and when he got the chance he and Robbie Henshaw went to watch them take on Scotland in Kobe.

In an interview with the Irish Independent in 2015, he spoke about the brotherhood of 'usos' dotted around the globe.

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"Even though those lads are on the other side of the world, we stay in contact through doing the same things," he says. "We're a band of brothers, we play against each other but everything stays on the field and once you come off the field you're all brothers."

Aki grew up playing in the Samoan 'Village Championships' in Auckland, honing his game against a number of players who went on to make a mark on the game.

Growing up, the All Blacks and Samoa were live options, but when Pat Lam called offering the prospect of a green jersey it was tough to resist.

When he gave an honest answer to a straight question to stuff.co.nz when confirming his move, he drew plenty of criticism.

"Family is everything for me," he said back in 2014. "That's a big part of my decision to move. Hopefully when the time is right and if I'm playing good footy, hopefully I can play for the Ireland international team.

"I've got to play well before that though. I'm eligible for Samoa.

"That was another big decision for myself – to see if I would play for them or not. If I play three years over there and it doesn't go well, I can always go back to Samoa.

"They are a good international team as well but I'm just trying to look after my family and myself."

A couple of years later, he reflected on those comments when speaking to this paper.

"Pat is convincing alright. He talked about his ambitions and what he sees in Connacht and I told him I'd love to be a part of it," he recalls of Lam.

"It was a massive call, but I'm quite a religious person and I took a step by faith, you know? It's going really well at the moment. Once you make a decision, you've just got to go with it. You can't go half-hearted.

"It was difficult when I left, I had a few people come up, talking to me about it, but at the end of the day you have to do what's best for yourself, what's best for my family.

"I want to better myself and my rugby career, each day I want each thing I do to better myself and my family.

"I grew up in a pretty rough area. Back at home we put everything in. I love to play with a whole heart, I hate coming off the field thinking I could have done more, that I emptied half of my tank," he explains.

"If you're going to do something, you've just got to do it with everything you have. Whether it's cleaning a ruck, picking up a poor pass, tackling, when you have those standards it lifts the boys as well.

"I treat every game the same, I just play hard and strong and try and have an impact on my team."

Certainly, his Ireland team-mates appreciate what he brings to the party.

"Bundee since he came in has added real value ,"He's really looking forward to this week, he met a couple of the Samoan boys yesterday for a bit of grub," James Ryan said.

"On the pitch, he brings a real physical edge and he's so combative.

"Off it, he's great craic. Well able to have a laugh and everything else So, he's been super since he's come in.

"He leads with his actions when he plays. He puts in big hits, he makes big carries. He's a very easy person to follow in that regard.

"He really leads in the way he plays. If he puts in a big hit or goes forward with the ball, I think it gives everyone a lift. So the more we can get him doing that, the better."

That approach will serve Aki well on what is bound to be an emotional occasion.

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