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FEATURE How 'Connacht man' Bundee Aki took the world by storm

How 'Connacht man' Bundee Aki took the world by storm
3 months ago

“Oh, Bundee’s a s**t. He’s terrible to be around.”

Mack Hansen keeps a straight face for about five seconds, before breaking into a grin. As one of the leaders of the welcoming committee when Hansen first rocked up in Galway, the stories of epic, jolly nights out are more in line with the Bundee Aki most of us know and love.

To mark his arrival in Ireland back in 2014, the Connacht squad treated Aki to a two-day session, followed by a trip to his new home stadium. “Oh,” he remembered thinking as he beheld a rain-soaked Sportsground, “a dog track.”

Bundee Aki
Bundee Aki has immersed himself and his family in the Connacht province, his influencing extending far beyond the field (Photo by PA)

When Hansen came to town two years ago, Aki was only paying it forward. He had been the new guy before – eager, apprehensive and admittedly thirsty. After that epic Connacht Pro12 title triumph in 2016, Aki got to know quite a few more of the best haunts and getaways during the riotous celebrations.

“He’s great,” says Hansen. “He’d be one of my really good mates down here, for sure. He’s a great fella and mostly this happy-go-lucky guy. Saying that, he can be a little bit hard-headed sometimes but just a great bloke and a top player.

“You know, when Bundee is enjoying himself, that is when he’s at his best. You can see, right now, what a great time he is having. He’s got a big smile on his face when he’s playing these games.”

At Twickenham, the smiles came at a steeper price as Ireland found themselves jarred in a tempest. James Lowe and Josh van der Flier were two who kept their heads straight and did more than was asked. Ireland did not play badly to lose their first Six Nations game in a dozen outings. Many of their players were, strangely, average.

It is not intended as a slight, merely the deciding factor which often makes you drop your head and heave a sigh at the final whistle. This set of players are so used to going above and beyond it was unnerving to many of their fans to see them as merely adequate. Lowe and Van der Flier made punching impacts on the game and Hugo Keenan had some bright moments, as did Rónan Kelleher off the bench.

A head-wreck problem at the breakdown, a five-alarm issue in attack, thudding through tackles as if he’s cradling an anvil.

Then there was Aki – the only player in green England could not get a handle on. They took the licks from Aki as they jabbed, cut and did their damage elsewhere.

The centre carried on his early 2023 form into that summer, all the way through the World Cup and back from France. He has been Ireland’s star performer across their four Six Nations games.

What makes it all the more impressive is the fact his calling cards are littered all over some of the biggest and most entertaining games in world rugby. The opposition know what is coming, they plan for it and drill for it. They have schemes in place – ways to bottle up, divert, starve him of possession. And yet there he is, against such mighty adversaries as New Zealand, France and South Africa – a head-wreck problem at the breakdown, a five-alarm issue in attack, thudding through tackles as if he’s cradling an anvil.

The question, when he was at Connacht in those early years, was whether he would transfer his obvious talents to the Test stage. Aki was this wanton force for so many games in that club jersey. One of his stand-out games was October 2017, when Munster came to Galway with a stacked side. Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and co wanted to test the guy out before he was officially welcomed into the Ireland camp. He had a backline featuring Conor Murray, Chris Farrell, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls to bang against.

Still, the moments which separated fans from their seats came when he crashed and clashed with Stander, O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell. Following their 20-16 victory, Connacht shared a dressing room video of the reaction as Aki, a man in demand after rounds of post-match interviews, entered. “BUNDEEEEEEE!!” The man was loved down there.

Wayne Barnes Bundee AKi
Aki was a thunderous performer at the Rugby World Cup and his astonishingly high standards have not slipped since (Photo by PA)

“Bundee is a Connacht man,” declared Pat Lam, his coach at the time. “You can truly say he’s a Connacht man. He has embraced this area. He has embraced the people. With Pacific Islanders, everything is around the family and the extended family. It doesn’t need to be about blood; it just needs to be the people you care about.

“Bundee always talks about these (guys) as his brothers. You see that side but what I see is… he pushes some guys really hard. He gets in some people’s faces at training. He’s physical; he wants high standards. He drives that as well. He enjoys himself socially as well but, certainly, he has a lot of respect for these guys because he loves this place.”

Joe Schmidt could not wait to get his hands on him. Aki made his Ireland debut in November 2017, a month after that win over Munster, and started 12 Tests over the next 12 months (winning 11 of them). His first major swerve arrived at the 2019 World Cup, when he was red-carded for a high shot against Samoa. He missed the quarter-final loss to New Zealand and would not get to make it up to Schmidt, who was succeeded by Andy Farrell.

He doesn’t skip reps, doesn’t skip any of little things. That’s just what makes him one of the world’s best.

Aki started off back in the 12 jersey. Come the 2021 Six Nations, however, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose were the midfield pairing. Aki sat out the first four games, returned to face England and was red-carded again. Another high shot.

When the 2021 British and Irish Lions squad for South Africa was named, most of us will admit we did not see Aki’s inclusion coming. Looking back, it makes perfect sense. In 2022 he was a key Six Nations figure but Farrell had him on the bench for the first and second Tests of the summer tour to New Zealand. He replaced Ringrose after 30 minutes in Dunedin, and would play a huge part of that historic series win over the All Blacks.

That September, he copped a ban after being sent off for Connacht against Stormers. The suspension sidelined him for Ireland wins over South Africa and Fiji before a try-scoring impact, off the bench, against Australia. He had the number 23 jersey for the start of last year’s Six Nations but ended as the undoubted 12, and has been on the charge ever since.

“Bundee might give off that laid-back persona but for sure, he’s on the other end of the spectrum on when it comes to getting the work done,” Hansen tells us.

“He’s constantly one of the people longest in gym. He’s good at doing his extras and putting in the work so he’s ready for the end of the week. I’d say he’s been doing the exact same thing [in Ireland camp], week in, week out and that’s exactly why he’s so good. He doesn’t skip reps, doesn’t skip any of little things. That’s just what makes him one of the world’s best.”

Digging into the Opta stats of his Six Nations influence over the past four years, Aki’s jousting with Henshaw, Ringrose and Stuart McCloskey for starting roles does level out the numerical comparisons. What is striking, however, is the scary level of consistency. We had a look at nine key areas for centres across the championship. Aki is in the top five for seven of the categories.

Gaël Fickou sits proudly in many of those same charts (top try-scorer, most rucks hit and turnovers won) over that four-tournament stretch. Ignacio Brex has the most carries (150) and is tied with Fickou on passes which led to a line break (seven). Both men have started 19 Six Nations games over that period.

Across the same stretch, Aki has started 11 times and come off the bench twice more. The closest comparison is Scotland’s Huw Jones (10 starts, two sub outings). Jones has only 92 carries to Aki’s 120 but has gained 627m, far clear of his peers. Jones ties with Henry Slade for most line breaks (nine), has the most try assists (five), has scored six tries and got 13 offloads away.

Those Jones numbers are impressive, and back up what your eyes tell you during Scotland matches. Again, though, it is that influence and effect Aki has across the board which makes him so important to what Ireland do. He is hitting more rucks, winning more turnovers, slowing more opposition ball and putting his hand up for more work.

Heading into the final Six Nations weekend, England’s win over Ireland has altered some narratives. Ireland are an excellent team, not juggernauts. England may yet have cracked this new style. Scotland and France can still finish high and win back some pride. Italy could achieve their best ever finish while Wales continue to shed a generation of legends. It has made the player of the tournament picture murkier, too. Lowe and Joe McCarthy have had their moments but, right now, it looks to be between Aki and Ben Earl.

Earl is positively fizzing, going into that Lyon date with France. As for Aki, we know what to expect, and so do Scotland. What they can do about it is another matter.

Comments

6 Comments
S
Stephen 96 days ago

Connaught man? How you can write that without blushing.

C
Colin 99 days ago

This is a fact for those who are uncomfortable with it. Aki was born and bred in NZ and is a not Irish at all.

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