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FEATURE Bundee Aki: From Auckland bank teller to Ireland rugby superstar

Bundee Aki: From Auckland bank teller to Ireland rugby superstar
8 months ago

Bundee Aki was the last Irish hero to leave the field on Saturday night. The colossal centre sat on the Stade de France turf, bright green jersey flecked with mud and sweat, cradling his two youngest children as if picnicking down the park on some leisurely afternoon. Scotland vanquished; the hit parade of Irish anthems booming around the bowl, even as the delirious revellers funnelled out towards the Saint Denis bars.

It was fitting Aki should be the final man to troop down the tunnel, since he has played every minute of every pool match on Ireland’s roaring ascent to the quarter-finals. No player at the Rugby World Cup has carried more ball, gained more metres or scuttled more would-be tacklers. Only one has made more line-breaks and only a handful bettered his haul of four tries. He was named player of the match twice and could conceivably have won a clean sweep of awards. He has been the outstanding cog in Andy Farrell’s well-oiled winning machine.

Yet life, for Aki, could have unfolded so differently. He had the first of his four children in 2008, aged 18. Four years later, he worked as a teller in an Auckland bank, feeling the pressure to earn and provide as his rugby dreams withered.

Tim Nanai-Williams, the much-travelled Samoa back, grew up a few blocks away from Aki in the squally suburb of Manurewa. The pair forged a lasting childhood bond through their love of sport and their Pasifika community. But eleven years ago, while Nanai-Williams cracked the Chiefs Super Rugby squad, Aki was mostly cracking open beers.

Bundee Aki shared special minutes with his two youngest children after Ireland hammered Scotland in Paris (Photo by Julian Finney – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

“I was around him a lot at that time,” Nanai-Williams, a year older than Aki, 33, remembers. “More so, he was just working and drinking. He always had the desire to play. His mum played a big role, she would always ask me to come over and just motivate him to play some club footie, you could see he still wanted to play.

“We had a community sevens team called the Saints and we just did fitness, fitness, fitness. He was bigger back then because he wasn’t playing. We got him in there and he got fit, and he could play club footie.”

A phone call from an All Black giant who, like Aki and Nanai-Williams, had Samoan blood coursing through his veins, changed everything.

“Tana Umaga was at (NPC side) Counties Manukau and he rung me and asked ‘what do you reckon about Bundee?’ The deal was, as a club player, you’d go in and train with the squad at 6am, and you weren’t paid.

“Bundee was trying to work and provide and I told him, ‘hey, just guts it out, because once you make NPC, you could be on your way… and if you don’t go, I’m gonna get in trouble too! I know what you can do.’ He just needed a little kick up the arse. He made the Counties team that year, quit his job and went from there.”

He was in a few fights. His mum used to tell me to take him with us so he’s doing sports and not getting into any trouble.

Samoan families pepper South Auckland and are ferociously proud of their neighbourhoods. The early days in Manurewa shaped the two boys, though they were not blind to the perils of their local streets. Young Aki had a short temper and an impudent streak. Rugby was the ticket to bigger things.

“Bundee was a bit of a little shit,” his old friend says with a chuckle. “That guy got in a bit of strife, a bit of trouble. He’s been in a few fights. Especially where we grew up, it’s pretty rough, not much good going on. Luckily we had sports so we could move away from that lifestyle at a young age. His mum used to tell me to take him with us so he’s doing sports and not getting into any trouble.

“We gravitated to sport and got away from the bad stuff that happens in neighbourhoods. Manurewa had a bad rep. There was always crime happening, it was everywhere, but at the same time we felt safe because we always knew who people were and where families who could help were.

“I was two years above him and he was always hanging out with us older boys trying to fit in. What you see is what you get with Bundee, even now. He took a little bit of handling at a young age, but that’s what he is.”

Aki joined Nanai-Williams at the Super Rugby champions a year later, helping Dave Rennie’s swashbuckling Chiefs claim back-to-back titles in 2013. He scored six tries in 12 matches, including a typically compelling cameo in the final.

Childhood friends Aki and Nanai-Williams won a Super Rugby title together at the Chiefs (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

A few months on, a seminal decision was made. Pat Lam reached out from a far-flung, unfancied and unglamorous Irish province. Connacht were a coming team in 2014, but had not finished above eighth in the old Pro12 for 11 years.

The mighty Aki flung himself into Irish life and into European rugby like a beast. He won the Pro12 in 2016, a glorious triumph Connacht folk may never have dared dream possible.

“Bundee says Connacht is kinda similar to Counties,” Nanai-Williams continues. “He felt like he was back home. Counties are from a small town, not flashy, not like the Auckland or Canterbury teams. We were training inside a gym that was like a big butcher’s freezer.”

In November 2017, when Aki became eligible to play for Ireland through residency, Joe Schmidt sent for him. The decision was not universally popular. In fact, for many followers it sat firmly in the lead balloon category. Some thought it cynical; others questioned Aki’s right to wear the jersey. It felt a more venomous reaction than most adopted internationals received before him.

“Bundee embraced the whole thing,” Nanai-Williams says. “When he does something, he goes for it.”

The eligibility debate raged on. So did Aki. He became a roaring behemoth in Schmidt’s midfield, starting every match of the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018.

In a restaurant they’ve got a new burger called the Bundee Burger. They’ve named a burger after the bloke. You can go down to a local pub and sit in the Bundee Booth.

Scepticism soon waned. Aki has lived in the little town of Oranmore, a few miles around the bay from Galway, since signing for Connacht. There he is a veritable celebrity.

“He’s the king of Oranmore,” says Andy Friend, who coached the province for the past five seasons. “In a restaurant they’ve got a new burger called the Bundee Burger. They’ve named a burger after the bloke. You can go down to a local pub and sit in the Bundee Booth, and it’s always full. He’s been adopted by Galway, Oranmore, and Connacht. The way he put his body on the line for Connacht for so many years.”

When Friend fetched up in 2018, there was a burning question on his mind. “Has that bloke re-signed? Yes? Good.”

The Australian succeeded Kieran Keane and knew instantly what an asset he would get his paws on.

“He’s an energiser, mate. He has an incredible capacity to move the mood of a room.

“When they’d won the Pro12 in 2016, he was the player of the tournament; most line breaks, metres made, dominant carrier, dominant defender, dominant personality. He was someone that as an opposition 10, when the teams came out, you’d go, ‘bugger, I wish he wasn’t playing’.”

Aki built his reputation on muscular carries and rib-cracking hits, but he has varnished his play with flourishes of footballing class. No longer can his detractors paint him as a one-dimensional bludgeon. Under Friend, he worked on his distribution and kicking. In the autumn of his career, his engine is running smoother than ever. Against South Africa’s world champion midfield, and Scotland’s much-vaunted backline, Aki was the outstanding centre.

Ireland sank New Zealand in an historic 2-1 Test series triumph last July, with Aki featuring in each match (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

“We know he can carry and tackle but he’s added subtleties to his game – a nice little deft pass out the back which wasn’t there previously, he’s added to his kicking game,” Friend goes on.

“His speed has surprised a lot of people – he’s not getting any younger, but he seems to be getting quicker – and his timing has been impeccable this World Cup. The angles he hits and the timing of what he’s doing.

“The first three or four times against Scotland, they used Bundee as a decoy because you know eyes are on him and he is occupying two defenders, you can play out the back and it gives you space somewhere else.

“When you’ve got a player like that, you’ve got scope to build a package around it. Bundee has a really good view of the game, he understands nuances. That’s not very common in rugby. It gives you advantages tactically when the game is going on.”

What Aki also has is a precious capacity to unite those around him. Through his awesome presence on the field and the sheer force of his being off it, people want to go to war with this pulsing bundle of hunger.

If something happened and he wasn’t wearing the number 12 jersey this weekend, I can tell you now the New Zealand team would be going, ‘thank Christ’.

“When he’s in favour of something it definitely swings the mood in the right way and gets people believing and wanting to get in behind him and march over the trenches. That’s what I’m seeing at the moment. He’s in that mood and he’s got followers. He’s playing like his life depends on it.”

So it will be on Saturday night. Aki has played New Zealand five times and beaten the land of his birth all but once. He returned from injury to stupefy the All Blacks on Ireland’s remarkable Test series victory last July. This could be a quarter-final for the ages.

“I go back to that tour when he was made captain of the midweek team as he was coming back to fitness,” Friend says. “The way he spoke after that with enormous emotion around how proud he was to captain his new, adopted country, was a really special moment.

“Bundee is a tough bloke, a hard man, but every person has an emotional side to them and sometimes it’s hard to see that side. That day, you saw his emotion. He’s not just a warrior, he genuinely cares about this country. Since that moment, Bundee has gone onto another level where he’s quite happy to express his true emotion, and you’re getting a performance on the rugby field which is fantastic.

“He is the form player of the World Cup. If something happened and he wasn’t wearing the number 12 jersey this weekend, I can tell you now the New Zealand team would be going, ‘thank Christ’.”

Back in rugby-obsessed Manurewa, the locals will be watching captivated. The unruly kid from round the corner, taking names, claiming trophies, bossing the rugby world on the other side of the globe.

“We always crack up about it; things could have gone another way,” Nanai-Williams reflects. “We still love where we come from.

“Everyone will be Irish on Saturday. It doesn’t matter what nation a kid plays for if he’s from our neighbourhood. There will be a few green flags floating around. I’ll probably be wearing one too.”

Comments

23 Comments
F
Fred 241 days ago

That's really inspiring and true. Sports is a remedy for young men and women to stay away from their ugly surroundings of unruly underbelly crime and unwanted outcomes. Aki is a great player and if O'Driscoll was outside him right now what a side this would be. As All Blacks supporter Ireland comes second.

b
by George! 250 days ago

Bundee is a Pacific Irelander, to be sure.

J
Jon 250 days ago

Counties were very similar to Ireland, put a lot of emphasis on their attack and using width, Aki was a star from his first game doing exactly what he does now, providing that attack with some directness and power. Tim played the Hansen role but from the back, or 13, coincidentally.

It's a shame the Blue's were a laughing stock then. New Zealand Rugby were more interested in propping up that team by contracting their centers instead. There was also the fact that Sonny Bill-Williams (cousin to Tim) was returning to Counties that year, and Chiefs the next, while they also had Charlie Ngatai on the books.

Incidentally, who has been the better 12 domestically last year, Aki or Ngatai?

K
KiwiSteve 250 days ago

I get the migration argument. But no one ever mentions that this means a player with Irish parents misses out. It's kind of mercenary.

C
CO 251 days ago

It's a shame Nanai-Williams has the Manurewa kids backing Ireland when they should be supporting their country. No chance Irish kids would be doing that.

I
Isikeli 251 days ago

Bundee burger for an island boy that is the pinnacle of joy and respect. Manurewa wearing green that is something to see.

P
Pecos 251 days ago

Bundlee, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson Parks, all Kiwi residency players, & number 1 starters for Ireland. Good on them.

R
Red and White Dynamight 251 days ago

Ireland's Polynesian population: 1. Can't develop their own talent, easier to buy from the shelf.

N
Neil 251 days ago

Nice article thank you. You can see why he's held in such high regard in Galway.

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