Bundee Aki prepared for his biggest challenge yet
Like a true Schmidt disciple, Aucklander driven by constant search for improvement
Ireland’s Bundee Aki takes a picture with his six-year-old daughter Adrianna and members of the extended Aki family after the victory over South Africa at the Aviva. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Following Bundee Aki’s debut for Ireland last November against South Africa, there was a picture of him with his wife, parents, brothers, cousins and others in an extended family portrait at one end of the pitch. His wife had the picture framed and it is hanging up at their home in Galway. Pride of place amongst his rugby memorabilia.
The travelling entourage had come to Ireland to see this part of the world, and to see Aki play for Connacht. For them to see him play for his adopted country was a bonus, for them and him.
Like his mentor Pat Lam, who first brought him over to Galway, Aki was born in Auckland to Samoan parents, Hercules and Sautia, and like Lam, he sees the rugby family as an extension of his own.
Aki is the second oldest of seven, and to have his two brothers, Bob and Sam, in the Aviva Stadium that day, as well as his wife Kayla and one of his daughters, Adrianna, meant the world to him.
“I had my brothers, and my cousins, and they had come over from overseas. They were meant to be here for a month and then ended up staying here for two and a half months. I was lucky enough to be named and luckily enough they were there for my first game. I think that was probably the most satisfying thing, having my family there watching me play. It’s taken a while to get to where I wanted to be and they were there to witness it.”
Only a curmudgeon could begrudge Aki the evident happiness which that day brought to him.
He has brought the same energy and enthusiasm to his game with Ireland as he has done with Connacht, and has settled in well, witness his first Test try and a classic Aki try-scoring assist for Keith Earls, as well as leading Ireland’s tackle count, last time out.
He already seems to have been around longer than four games, and with Chris Farrell likely to partner him for a third time against Wales in the absence of Robbie Henshaw, Aki’s role has become even more important.
Yet he maintains: “There is ownership on every individual to do everything right. I’m just as new as Chris is and we have to make sure that we put our head down and work for each other. The likes of Johnny and Robbie and Earlsy have been working hard for each other for a very long time. We just have to make sure that we work as hard as they have. If he gets the nod he is a class player. He does everything right and he is a strong, big boy. Can’t complain.”
Aki was struck by the higher tempo, and the greater premium on accuracy, of Test rugby. Again sounding like a true Joe Schmidt disciple, he talks of learning every day to make himself better, of doing things for the betterment of the team as opposed to himself, and how the Six Nations has been another step up.
“That intensity, the way you do things around the park, the reason why you do things is at a different level to what you normally play with over at Connacht, and to the November series. There is a lot of detail that you need to deliver. You have to perform every single week and after you win the game you have to park that and move on. That’s what we will look to do for another difficult challenge this week.”
Indeed, he senses it will be his and Ireland’s most difficult challenge yet in his short Test career.
“They are going to be very dangerous, they’re bringing back world-class players, the likes of Dan Biggar and Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny. They’ve got world-class players around the park and George North is on the bench as well. Their front row are class players. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough task, it’s not going to be easy.”
His friendship with former Connacht team-mate Henshaw has remained strong. “I was with him at the weekend. He called over and we hung out for the weekend. We played a bit of Playstation and I whipped him in FIFA, nothing different in that!”
He also stays in regular contact with former coach Lam, now at Bristol.
“He has little chats with me after the games and he is very proud of where I am, and he says, ‘Keep going, you’re in the place where you need to be, but you need to make sure you keep doing the hard work’.”
But when the family assemble in the middle of the night back in Auckland to watch Aki’s latest foray, amongst them will be his biggest fan and critic, one even more exacting than Schmidt.
“They all just stay at home and get up in the early hours of the morning and watch it, and then just go back to sleep and then go to church in the morning. I get a phone call every Monday after the games from the old man and mum, trying to tweak my game, just making sure that I’m doing everything right. Obviously the game last week, my handling skills weren’t great, so he gave me an earful on that and he was making sure I’ll do it right next time.”
This is all said with a smile, as is usually the case with Bundee,
“Aw it’s always good knowing that your parents are always trying to tweak your game. They can see a different side of it and sometimes I can slip alright...and here’s another earful!”