Bundee Aki looking forward to new era with Connacht
Samoan excited about the arrival this summer of former Chiefs coach Kieran Keane
Bundee Aki: the Connacht star has signed up as an ambassador for Kinetica Sports’ partnership with Hell & Back who run the the 7 & 12km adventure race events in Bray. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Bundee Aki strapped up and battled through Connacht’s epic ride to a Guinness Pro 12 title. It caught up on him this season.
“People still come up to me on the street,” he said. “But we can’t dwell on it.”
The Connacht story, such a phenomenon it yielded two manuscripts, was shaped off field by Pat Lam and by Aki’s one-man stampede on it. These Samoan men guided the western province all the way to Murrayfield where they outsmarted then overran Leinster.
“That will be there forever,” Aki added.
Undeniable truth, especially considering how quickly the status quo has been realigned. Now 30 points and 39 tries separate the provinces as Leo Cullen’s team arrive in Galway on Saturday for a game that will either confirm Connacht’s return to mediocrity or keep them on life support for European qualification.
Glasgow lie sixth in the Pro 12, the Champions Cup playoff spot, eight points clear of Connacht in seventh with three games to go. It’s time to deliver or go chase mayfly on the Corrib.
Also, Lam becomes Bristol coach next season.
That decision revealed clear friction in camp after his parting gift was to secure the signatures of Aki and Ultan Dillane. English and French clubs, along with Munster, had been circling. Aki tweeted his toys out of the pram when Lam announced his imminent departure.
“People are aware about my tweet,” he laughed. “I did overreact a bit...We are really good mates, he has been really good to me.”
A Leinster victory at the Sportsground will all but lock down an RDS semi-final. It’s unclear whether Johnny Sexton will feature. The PR handlers, at the Rugby Players Ireland launch this week, oddly ruled out any questions to Sexton about this fixture.
Leinster have also adopted a vague policy on Rob Kearney following bicep surgery. Same goes for Jamie Heaslip. It’s also unclear if Aki will finally face his good pal Robbie Henshaw – a bond sealed following the curious case of the stolen lap top – but Aki is certain about Henshaw’s immediate future.
“He was phenomenal in the Six Nations and the way he played against the All Blacks in Chicago and over here, unfortunately before his injury, I have full confidence he will play against the All Blacks.”
This Aki interview, held in Kilruddery House near Bray, got off to the worst possible start.
Bundee’s agent, the PR man told us, didn’t want him badgered about declaring for Ireland via residency in November so the written journalists at “Kinetica’s partnership with Hell & Back” were told that TV3 had already asked the question so we were not to “keep hammering” on about it.
Basically, this was a nice earner for Aki so no tough questions. It’s staggering to think the 27-year-old, considering his stature in Irish rugby, would struggle to cope with some gentle probing about the most important decision of his career.
“You’re right, I do want to play at the highest level, which is international rugby, but I need to focus on Connacht,” said Aki. “I can’t think ahead of myself. Ireland have quality players. Jeez, they have a lot of good players there. I can’t parachute my way in there.”
That answer invites conjecture. The alternative to declaring for Ireland would be to break out of his Connacht contract, declare for Samoa and seek a significant wage increase at a French or English club.
Either way, he is going to give Kieran Keane a go. The 63-year-old arrives this summer from The Chiefs, Aki’s old Super Rugby franchise, where he currently oversees a stunning attack.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things from the boys. He’s a player-driven kind of person. I heard he’s just a great coach who has been around the (NZ) system for a long time so I can learn from him.”
Not unlike Joe Schmidt, Keane’s a former school teacher and disciplinarian.
“I’ll be watching out for that!” Aki laughed. “All the players that I have talked to have said: ‘At first if you don’t know him you’ll think that he is trying to come hard at you but at the end of it you will love him for what he did for you and how he did it’. If players have that much respect for a coach what can you not like about him?”
The religious stance adopted by Sonny Bill Williams is put to Aki as their careers have intersected; he was promoted to the Chiefs 12 jersey when Williams temporarily switched back to Rugby League. The New Zealand rugby union have agreed to SBW, who converted to Islam in 2008, to be a “conscientious objector,” thereby allowing him tape over “banks, alcohol brands and gambling sponsors” on all team gear.
Williams will, however, allow the All Blacks main sponsor to be emblazoned across his chest when facing the Lions but he has been “recused from promotional activities with AIG.”
“Michael Jones missed a [World Cup] semi [in 1991] because he couldn’t play on Sundays,” said Aki. “I respect people’s religions. I have massive respect for Sonny. I’ve trained and played alongside him. If you have your beliefs then go with it really. He is a man of his word, a man of his beliefs.”
Courage of his convictions?
“Exactly. He plays by it, he lives by it.”
Except for the insurance giant (and its subsidiary Banque AIG). Maybe that’s too big to tape over.