Six Nations 2023: Bundee Aki comes in from the cold at just the right time

Left out of Connacht club rugby for several weeks the centre is on the bench to face Wales

Rugby players often use the word animation to act out a move or a play during competition. It might be a dummy run, or a no-look pass or a pose to strike for a lineout when the ball is going somewhere else entirely.

The animation for James Lowe and Bundee Aki were similar in their run in to Ireland’s opening Six Nations match against Wales in Cardiff this weekend.

Neither player was visible in competitive games at European or league level. Lowe was not playing for Leinster and Aki was not picked by Connacht.

Lowe has not lined out with Leinster since December 26th against Munster and this week he and Mack Hansen will start on the wings for Ireland. Leinster explained Lowe’s absence was due to a trip home for family matters and that’s where it rests.


Aki, who has been picked on the bench with Farrell favouring Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey at inside centre to partner Garry Ringrose, has not played for Connacht since mid-December against Brive. He has lined out just five times for Connacht this season.

It is a welcome sight to see Aki’s name among the replacements as he played a huge role in the summer’s historic Test series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

His physicality, strength and work rate are not just funnelled into being a crash-ball player, but over the years he has redefined his role with a passing game added to his gainline ability.

But there has been an information vacuum in Connacht. Just why Aki has not been playing has not been fully explained. Head coach Pete Wilkins was asked about it a few weeks ago.

“We certainly won’t do anything to harm his chances there but it’s important we have that open line of communication with those guys [Ireland coaches] as well,” he said.

“Everyone wants to play and everyone has international ambitions, and there are different stages of that journey. We certainly wouldn’t do anything that we thought was harming a player’s development, either with us or in terms of representing the national team. It’s about trying to pick the best team and manage the group.

“Bundee has been training with us, he was excellent today, we’ve just come off a big session this morning. He had a good Monday as well. He’s in a good head space and is training hard. Bundee is absolutely available. At the same time he’s in a position where there’s a fair amount of competition.”

Wilkins answered the question but in terms of explicitly why, the explanation was a nothing burger. The inference was that Aki was being beaten to the punch in the centre by Cathal Forde, Tom Farrell and Byron Ralston. Really.

His disappearance from the Connacht landscape also came after the Irish centre was banned for eight weeks after picking up the third red card of his career at the end of September, forcing him to miss the November Tests against South Africa and Fiji.

The red card came after making head contact in a clear out with Stormers wing Seabelo Senatla. But his interactions with referee Gianluca Gnecchi saw him being handed an entry suspension point of 10 weeks, reduced by four weeks due to mitigating factors including acceptance off-field he committed foul play, expressions of remorse and apologies.

Two further weeks were added due to Aki having twice been red carded before for incidents involving head contact (2019 and 2021), as well as a previous suspension and warning regarding interactions with referees, taking the total ban to eight weeks.

Whatever has taken place in Connacht has directly impacted his place on the Irish team. None of the players currently keeping him off the Connacht starting XV are in the Irish squad, so in selection terms there is a disconnect.

That’s not to say the 30-year-old McCloskey, who started all three Autumn Series Tests, does not deserve an opportunity to nail down a more permanent place in a career with Ireland that has been sporadic.

Whatever way Saturday breaks, whether it is McCloskey giving Farrell enough at inside centre to make him want to see more, or, whether Aki comes on as an impact player, at which he is good at doing, the hope is he can resolve the issues that have kept him silent with his club.

It was Aki from the bench, who benefited from clever lineout variation against Australia in November after Caelan Doris was launched into their defence. The replacement took his cue on the hour and powered through two defensive tackles to score.

If animation is the word with a World Cup six months away, it is more than timely for the 31-year-old to again appear on a team sheet. When the time comes on Saturday to animate Aki knows what to do.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times