Bundee Aki: ‘When the videos came through of my family, there were goosebumps’

Warren Gatland’s family-comes-first policy helps Lions squad handle the separation

Bundee Aki at British & Irish Lions squad training in Jersey, UK last Friday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Bundee Aki at British & Irish Lions squad training in Jersey, UK last Friday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Family comes first. That’s the abiding principle which underpins Warren Gatland’s approach as Lions head coach, be it taking parties of 87 and 85 to Australia and New Zealand eight and four years ago, or of around 75 to South Africa next Sunday.

“The first thing I always say to the squad is how lucky we all are to be involved in the Lions but family comes first,” Gatland said four years ago, “and if there are issues with family to come and talk to us.”

After completing a 10-day camp in Jersey on Thursday, before spending three nights in Edinburgh for Saturday’s warm-up test against Japan in Murrayfield, the squad flies out on Sunday to Johannesburg.

It’s tough not being around your family at these kind of times but it just gives us a bit of a push, that you’re going to be away from your family but you’re doing it for them

This will be a particularly restrictive tour for the squad; they’ll be cocooned in bio-secure bubbles, with eight weeks in camp from pillar to post plus any quarantining that may be required, thus making connection with home, family and loved ones all the more important.

To that end, four years ago Trudi Gatland helped to compile a Father’s Day video with messages and poems from the players’ children which left more than a few lumps in throats, until Maro Itoje broke the ice by quipping: “I have to get myself a baby!”

Team hotel

There was a similar presentation at the team hotel in Jersey on Sunday.

“We were all at a team meeting and they put up videos of everyone’s families sending in videos which I thought was a touch of class,” said Bundee Aki on Monday.

He and his wife, Kayla, have two girls, Armani-Jade and Adrianna as well as a baby boy, Andronikas.

“When the videos came through of my family and my girl was talking, I didn’t want to show emotion but there were a lot of goosebumps.

“It just goes to show that everything everybody is doing here is for their families and everybody else. It’s obviously tough not being around your family at these kind of times but it just gives us a bit of a push, that you’re going to be away from your family but you’re doing it for them and everybody else who is watching in the countries as well.”

Born in Auckland to Samoan parents, and the second oldest of seven, Aki will have plenty of support in a Lions red jersey over the next seven weeks.

“I have family in New Zealand and Australia. Dad is working in Australia and mum is at home. I have uncles and aunties in Samoa as well so there will be a lot of people supporting me.”

Exercised minds

For some reason, Aki’s selection for the Lions – while a hugely popular one generally – has exercised the minds of some critics, as has been the case when he is playing for Ireland. It is something he has always taken in his stride.

If you saw us you would say we were together for three or four or five weeks. Everyone has been getting along, communicating and cracking a few jokes

“People have their opinions and the right to express their opinions. At the end of the day, that’s what I had to do for my family and from the get-go all the decisions that I’ve made have been to make life better for me and my family.”

With Finn Russell and the Saracens quintet linking up with the squad in Jersey on Monday, all but the Exeter quartet who have qualified for Saturday’s Premiership final against Harlequins are now in camp.

“If you were in this group and you saw us you would say we were together for three or four weeks, or five weeks,” said Aki. “Everyone has been getting along with each other, expressing themselves, communicating and cracking a few jokes here and there.

“It’s actually very cool and a privilege to be a part of it. Everyone is travelling together, everyone knows each other, so it is going to be interesting to see how strong we are together and how tight we are as a group.”

So far so good but, as Gatland will know as well as anyone, there’s a long way to go yet.

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