Bundee Aki: ‘I don’t know if I’d get the same treatment somewhere else’

A talisman on the pitch, Connacht’s first Lion in 39 years is adored by the young fans

Connacht’s Bundee Aki has turned down some big offers from abroad to stay with the Irish province. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Bundee Aki has turned down some big offers from abroad to stay with the Irish province. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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Connacht probably thought they struck gold when they first signed Bundee Aki in 2014, but in truth little did they know. It’s hard to credit, but despite plenty of speculation linking him with moves abroad, he is now in his eighth season with the province. A ninth will follow next season, and if that stretches into a decade and beyond, that’s fine by him too.

A talisman on the pitch, the province’s first Lion in 39 years and adored by the young supporters, Aki has become something of a poster boy for Connacht rugby. Along the way there have been lucrative offers from abroad, but in opting to stay loyal to the province, he sees it as merely repaying Connacht’s loyalty in him.

“To be fairly honest, I’m a person that when someone does so much for you and your family, they deserve the best from you. It is good business for me but what they’ve given to me and my family, the lifestyle that we have over here in Galway, I don’t know if I’d get the same treatment somewhere else, do you know what I mean?

If I had a chance to sit here and say that I had a chance to play in the new stadium and see Connacht develop, and I was still here, I would be the happiest man

“The love and the care that Connacht and the community have given to me and my family has been second to none. The only way for me, I think, to repay Connacht for is to give them my best performances and my best years of rugby, and encourage what they’re trying to promote with Connacht rugby in the near future.

“I want to be a part of that. I want Connacht people to know that you don’t have to go anywhere else, you can do it here in Galway and Connacht, and more kids playing for Connacht because of the likes of myself or John Muldoon and all those who come through the grades, who are inspired to be like one of us, then it’s only going to be good for Connacht. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve stayed with Connacht.

“The other thing is that when people look down at us, the perception that people have of us, I know what that feels like. I try to fight against it every single time and I quite like that.”

So making time for aspiring young fans is a fun part of the job.

“For me to do as little as a high five, say hello or pose for a photo, goes such a long way with those kids, and that’s exactly what I try to do and hope to do in the future.”

It’s all very much like Counties Manukau, the relatively unheralded provincial team with which he made his breakthrough and helped win both promotion in 2012 and a first Ranfury Shield in over half a century in 2013. Similarly, were he ever to play in New Zealand again, he couldn’t envisage playing for anyone else.

“You know when you come to Connacht your back is against the wall. You’re not being put in a team with a history of huge success and facilities. You have to work your backside off from the get-go and try to earn every bit of respect or result that you fight for. And I quite like that, because that’s exactly what it was like for me back at home. The history behind Connacht makes the wins more special.”

Fight

He cites the example of 2003, when Connacht were nearly disbanded as a professional entity, and how they fought to stay alive. “All that history gives a bit more of a bite, that you want to fight for it more and more.”

Nor has the fight or desire ebbed even slightly.

“If I had a chance to sit here and say that I had a chance to play in the new stadium and see Connacht develop, and I was still here, I would be the happiest man. I could say ‘I was a part of that.’ And I know there have been guys before me who have been part of that hard road and for me to be a part of that when it comes into plan, everything that Connacht have been fighting for, honestly it would be something cool and something special.”

Bundee Aki is hoping to win another trophy with Connacht and he’s loving his time out west. Photograph: James Crombie//Inpho
Bundee Aki is hoping to win another trophy with Connacht and he’s loving his time out west. Photograph: James Crombie//Inpho

His eighth season? It’s a surprise to him too. It’s flown by. He still remembers his first day in Galway, in October 2014.

“I got my first impression when I first got into the Connacht Hotel, and how people were so open to saying hello and greeting me and my family, and saying ‘welcome to Galway,’ which I thought was very nice. I thought if this is what people are like in Galway then I’m sure we’ll enjoy our time. Although weather wise it was frickin’ cold, bloody cold,” he stressed.

He had been sold before he even stepped aboard the plane from Auckland.

Helped by his former teammate Mils Muliaina making the same switch, there were also the persuasive powers of Pat Lam.

“Coming into the set-up at Connacht, it reminded me of back at home in New Zealand. We don’t have the flashiest things, we don’t have the best of facilities, but we make the best of what we have. I felt welcomed by the boys as well and I was straight into the team. Obviously I didn’t expect the dog track around the pitch. That was a bit of a surprise,” he says, chuckling.

Indeed, Lam hadn’t told him about that.

But he loves the tightness of the community, the way that almost everybody seems to know everybody, as well as being a popular tourist spot. “I don’t know, I just feel comfortable here in Galway.”

Aki was speaking after taking a dip in the sea in Blackrock yesterday, a customary ritual after Tuesday or Thursday training sessions, and a Captain’s Run.

“I try to do it as part of my recovery after every hard training session. It was bloody cold today though!”

From there he made his way home, which was Taylor’s Hill in Renmore until he and his family moved to Oranmore just before the first lockdown last year.

Kayla and the kids, Armani-Jade (now 13) and Adrianna (10) are long settled.

“The little one (Adrianna) is enjoying her school. She wakes up and walks to school with her friends. Armani-Jade is starting high school in a couple of weeks, which is scary.”

They’ve since added a baby boy too, Andronicus Junior Papamau. Some name.

“Unfortunately I didn’t have a say in that one,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Kayla’s mum chose that one. I had a fair say in naming the two girls, but with the third child her mum wanted to name him so I said; ‘yeah, you guys can name him’.”

His first birthday is tomorrow. “He was a home birth in Oranmore.” Andronicus Aki is thus Irish born and Irish qualified too.

Big offers

Conceivably he could have been born in France. There have been, as Aki puts it, “big offers” from abroad, especially after his Pro12 Player of the Year role in Connacht’s memorable 2016 title success.

“I knew Connacht weren’t going to be able to match that, and I had a good chat with my wife and the people I’m close to, but it came down to an easy decision. If you’re playing good rugby and you’re enjoying it, why leave?

“Sometimes people chase money, and I could easily have chased that big cash, but I chose not to. I chose to stick it out here in Galway and I don’t regret it whatsoever, because I have enjoyed every single minute of it.”

There have, invariably, been up and down years, but Aki reasons: “Without those tough times you wouldn’t have good times.”

Initially he made no secret of his disappointment that Lam left, though he’s long since come to terms with it.

“To be fair, Pat had to do what he had to do, and he’s doing well over in Bristol. I love Pat and I still keep in contact with Pat. He’s a lovely man and he talks to me still about my game, and teams that we play against.

“Obviously there were a few hiccups with KK (Kieran Keane) but I enjoyed my time with KK. He was a great coach and I understand the way he coaches in New Zealand. Now Friendy (Andy Friend) has come in and done a wonderful job.”

This season Peter Wilkins has assumed the role of attack coach, backed up by Mossy Lawlor’s launch plays as assistant attack coach, and though Aki’s game time has been restricted, it’s as enjoyable to play in as it to watch.

“I love the way we’re playing and the game plan that we have. Pete has a game plan that suits us. Especially when the Astroturf does get installed next year, it’s going to suit us even more.

“It’s a brand of rugby that we love to play and Mossy Lawlor has been incredible in our launch plays. He’s always on top of every bit of detail that we need for those plays. I give full credit to those two.”

“I just think we haven’t reached our full potential. That’s the scary part of it. We get bits and pieces of it, but we haven’t fully loaded together as a group.”

At 31 Aki appears to become much more talkative, calmer and more of a leader since his Lions experience.

“I learnt a lot training and playing with the best of the best. I was blessed to be a part of that squad. I tried to soak it all in, and apply that to my game and help out Connacht.”

The high point of the eight seasons to date remains being an integral part of Connacht’s 2016 Pro12 triumph, but he senses the same feeling in the squad this season.

First off, today’s game with Leicester at the Sportsground could be a stepping stone to breaking more new ground, becoming the first Connacht team to advance to the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup.

“We’ve been speaking about it quite openly. The boys know what is at stake but I always say to them let’s go out there and enjoy it. The more we enjoy and embrace playing this kind of game then the better we’ll get as a team.”

Longer term, Aki has a dream. Winning a trophy. Ensuring 2015-16 wasn’t a one-off.

“That’s my biggest goal with Connacht. I know we can do it and there’s no better time or no be better year to do it, and hopefully we’ll have that feeling this year again.”

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