Bundee Aki thrilled to be in line for his Lions Test debut

Centre becomes first Connacht player to play a Lions Test since 1983

Bundee Aki: “It’s a huge deal and a huge honour to be able to represent this prestigious team.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Bundee Aki: “It’s a huge deal and a huge honour to be able to represent this prestigious team.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

When Bundee Aki runs onto the Cape Town Stadium against South Africa in this Saturday’s series decider he will become the first Connacht player to feature in a British & Irish Lions Test since Ciaran Fitzgerald in 1983.

It’s been a hell of a journey from Auckland via Galway to this momentous week in his career, and yesterday he still seemed to be in pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming mode.

“It’s a huge deal and a huge honour to be able to represent this prestigious team. A lot of people pray to try and get to where we are and I’m blessed to be where I am at the moment. I’m grateful for the opportunity I’m getting this week.

“Not many people can say they’ve got a [Lions] Test cap, so I’m honestly not taking this lightly at all. I’m going to relish the time I have on the pitch and try and take it with both hands.”

Aki’s Lions Test debut is made just a little more special by him having his old Connacht midfield partner Robbie Henshaw alongside him.

“We’re close mates from Connacht. I’m blessed to be a teammate of Robbie and to play so many games with him. We just need to make sure we do what we do best as a partnership and make sure we gel together as well as a group. That’s what we’re asked to do, be ourselves and express ourselves.”

Aki and Henshaw played together for the latter’s last two seasons there, first partnering each other in a 21-11 defeat against Leinster at the RDS in December 2014. A week later they formed the midfield in a 24-16 win against Munster at the Sportsground.

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They only played together nine times that season, and with Henshaw away on international duty, another nine times in Connacht’s celebrated 2015-16 season. They suffered just one defeat in the 33-32 Challenge Cup quarter-final in Grenoble and were at the fulcrum of the other eight wins, notably the Pro12 semi-final and final victories over Glasgow and Leinster.

Henshaw was Aki’s centre partner in the latter’s Irish debut, that seminal 38-3 win over South Africa at the Aviva in November 2017 when he was also opposed by Damian de Allende (“I can’t speak highly enough of Damian de Allende, he’s a good bloke as well off the pitch”), who is one of eight Boks’ players who are again in next Saturday’s match-day squad.

Aki and Henshaw have played alongside each other 13 times for Ireland, winning nine times, most recently over England last March.

“Whatever you see with Robbie on telly, he’s the same guy off the pitch as well. He has grown massively, matured massively, as player. He’s starting to see things he didn’t really see when he was a young kid. When I came in, he was young, Pat [Lam] spoke highly of him, how much of a player he’s going to be in the future, and you can see it now.

“He’s playing unbelievable rugby. He’s doing what he does best, is play footie and he’s enjoying it. I am quite lucky to be playing alongside him so many times, and he’s just a great bloke.”

Good fit

Warren Gatland places great store by picking good tourists as well as great players, and Aki’s energetic personality always made him a good fit for such a restrictive tour.

Despite being involved in the first five games of the tour Aki hasn’t played since the defeat by the South Africa As three weeks ago but any glimpse or sound of him suggests he’s remained fully engaged, so much so that he admits some in the Boks’ camp told him to shut up during the second Test.

“I’ve actually had the best time of my life being part of this group, this group is special,” said Aki and he spoke glowingly about Owen Farrell.

“I think a lot of my visits on Instagram are me beating him at Fifa and he doesn’t like it. But honestly I’ve learnt so much off that guy. I didn’t think I’d get along with him so well. He’s a great bloke to have around.”

Aki conceded he had to overcome his disappointment when not picked in the first two Tests “because at the end of the day we are all here together as a group.

“It is hard to not be selected or not get the head-nod for the last couple of weeks. But look, you just get on with it. Just be a good bugger, you know what I mean? Excuse my language, sorry.”

Excused.

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