France midfielder Virimi Vakatawa is viewed as one of the world’s current on-form centres, but Fabien Gathie’s outside centre will have his hands full on Saturday night in Paris dealing with muscular Ireland No12 Bundee Aki.
The New Zealander has become a fixture in the Irish XV since qualifying under the three-year residency rule in November 2017, the 30-year-old starting in 26 of Ireland’s 33 matches since then.
Having helped his adopted country to Grand Slam glory in 2018, he will now look to help them clinch the 2020 Six Nations title with a Stade de France bonus-point win over the French.
And he will do so looking very different then was the case in previous times with Ireland.
In the early days, the IRFU match programme habitually mixed him up with Garry Ringrose, giving him the Leinster centre’s 92kg weight in their player profile.
“The Bundee that came in at the end of lockdown was a bit frightening, seriously intimidating. You’re looking at him and there’s muscles on muscles.” Connacht attack coach, Nigel Carolan.@JBradleyBT gets the lowdown on Ireland's midfield lynchpinhttps://t.co/s86DICEduX
— The XV (@TheXV) October 28, 2020
Details in away match programmes, though, were closer to the mark, Aki regularly listed as 101kgs on his travels, but he took action in the lead-up to last year’s World Cup and then used the lockdown lay-off to give his rig a quite menacing appearance.
Speaking to The XV about the centre’s rejuvenated look, Connacht assistant coach Nigel Carolan explained: “He’s gone through a total transformation. He was actually quite chunky a few years ago.
“He’d still have been bringing that physicality but he’d have been carrying a bit of excess too. Going into the World Cup last year, for whatever reason, he stripped it all back and was down to about 90 kilos. He felt being leaner would assist him. He sort of stripped it down and now built it back up.
“Going into lockdown, he was in a fairly confined space and I’d be getting videos of the skills work he was doing, he’d be kicking tennis balls against the wall and that sort of thing. I was thinking it was fantastic how he was applying himself but I didn’t see the physical progress as it was ongoing. The Bundee that came in at the end of lockdown, he was a bit frightening, seriously intimidating. You’re looking at him and there are muscles on muscles.”
Scotland back row Ryan Wilson, a co-host on the RugbyPass Offload show, suggested another reason why fans can’t ignore the presence of Aki these days. Reflecting on Glasgow’s opening round 2020/21 PRO14 defeat in Ireland, he said: “It was weird because Bundee Aki actually made me cringe a little bit how much he was going at it [trash talking].
“I even asked a couple of his players, ‘Like, you boys most be struggling?’… there is a good way to do it and there is a way which is like, ‘C’mon, rein it in a bit pal’.”
— The XV (@TheXV) October 24, 2020
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