Sunday 22 September 2019

'I was a very skinny kid, I wasn't big' - Bundee Aki recalls first meeting with Manu Tuilagi

Bundee Aki arrives for Ireland rugby squad training at Aviva Stadium
Bundee Aki arrives for Ireland rugby squad training at Aviva Stadium
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ask Bundee Aki what he remembers about Manu Tuilagi and a broad grin creeps about his features.

It was a tree-lined playing field in the English midlands more than a decade ago, Aki was in the midfield and, as he recalls laconically, Tuilagi was on the wing, even then his formidable frame a wrecking ball.

"I wasn't directly up against him, he stayed on the wing and thankfully he stayed away too!"

His then team-mate for Truro College, where Aki had travelled half-way around the world to take up a rugby scholarship, was not so lucky.

Josh Matavesi, the Fijian international who currently plies his trade for Newcastle, was no shrinking violet, but he could not escape the marauding Tuilagi from the famous family who have provided Samoa with a series of internationals.

Rolling

"I remember him rolling over Josh," he smiles when recalling the game against John Cleveland College, a remarkable institution that has produced three Lions players: Tuilagi, Graham Rowntree and Dean Richards.

"He was a young kid back then. I remember playing that game. It was me and Josh Matavesi playing in that same team."

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Could Aki have challenged Tuilagi even then?

"He wasn't that big but he was very strong, still as strong as he is now. Me? Look, if you see my photos back then, I was a very skinny kid, I wasn't big."

He's big now, immovable in an Irish midfield such that Joe Schmidt decided not to break up his blooming partnership with the fleet-footed Garry Ringrose, which in turn opens up the possibility of allowing Robbie Henshaw to roam free at full-back.

Setting aside the midfield battle for a moment, the attacking potential of this Irish team is brimming with obvious potential.

Wrecking Ball: Manu Tuilagi, at the age of 17, goes through the Scottish defence during an under-18 international. The Leicester Tigers centre will be hoping to do similar damage against Ireland tomorrow. Photo: Getty Images
Wrecking Ball: Manu Tuilagi, at the age of 17, goes through the Scottish defence during an under-18 international. The Leicester Tigers centre will be hoping to do similar damage against Ireland tomorrow. Photo: Getty Images

Prompt Aki into a more recent memory, when he and Henshaw dove-tailed from similar positions, and his recall is easily more accessible, and much more affirmative.

Three years ago, the pair combined for Connacht to set the seal on the province's first successful raid on Thomond Park in 29 years; Henshaw ghosting past Irish team-mate Keith Earls before his off-load allowed Aki to power his considerable frame into the left corner for a stunning try.

"It was a massive win," recalls Aki. "He obviously knows what he can do at the back. He is an attacking threat just as much as he is out in front.

"Look, Robbie is a class player. He has played full-back for Connacht as well and he is obviously a really good player. Whatever position Joe puts him in he puts everything in to it so it's good.

"For me, I'm just trying to do what I need to do for the team and not for myself. I'm trying to fit in well with the plans Joe has for the team and trying to work around guys, whether it's Garry or Robbie outside me. I'm just trying to do my part, which is a small cog in the wheel.

"It's the preparation throughout the week and having the confidence to know your work and the confidence in the guys around you.

"You have the World Player of the Year (Johnny Sexton) inside you, so what can you do? You can't complain. He's playing out of his boots at the moment and Garry too."

They will aim to have the ball in hand but England will have some too; and that is when the crash Test warriors will clash.

Leicester Tigers centre Tuilagi has played just once in this Championship since Aki debuted for Connacht in 2014; his release from perennial injury problems will, England hope, offer them the ballast required to play the game on their terms, buttressed by the return of the Vunipola brothers' heft.

"I have seen him back in New Zealand when I was back there watching footy and he is a dangerous player," says Aki.

"He is a very good ball carrier and very fast as well for a big boy.

"Coming back from injury he obviously wants to put a statement out there and he has been playing good footy in the Champions Cup.

"It's obviously going be just as much of a task as in every other game. It will be interesting."

And Aki is primed to make it less interesting.

"Hopefully it's a team job," he laughs.

"I'll try my very best. It's just cool to see him playing again. I don't know how they will change their play.

"Owen Farrell is very good where he is. He can move in at 12 or at 10. They are probably just sticking with Farrell at 10 because he runs the game very well and he has a good kicking game.

"He is a big ball-carrying threat as well, just as much as Manu is.

"Look, hopefully our work will pay off and we can put a big performance out.

"Any game against England, you have to make sure that your physicality is right up there regardless of who is playing.

"But the likes of Farrell and Manu, like you said, are very physical. Farrell is deceptively strong and Manu is just the same.

"You can see it in the way he carries the ball. You can't go in there thinking they will play a wide game and you forget about the physicality.

"That's your first point of contact, making sure you make a statement and make a mark on that."

He didn't get a chance to leave an impression on Tuilagi the last time they met. Now he finally gets his opportunity.

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