Already the toast of Connacht, Bundee Aki is ready to become a Lion
For the first time since 1983 Connacht have a representative in the touring squad
Jason Leonard, Chairman of the British and Irish Lions, announces Bundee Aki of Ireland in the squad. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The Connacht squad trained at the Sportsground on the morning the Lions squad was named before assembling in the dressing-room to watch the announcement on Sky Sports from noon. There were hopes that Bundee Aki might be named but the man himself decided not to join them.
“The backs,” Jason Leonard, the British & Irish Lions chairman, eventually began after the prolonged build-up. “Josh Adams, Cardiff Blues, Wales. Bundee Aki, Connacht Rugby, Ireland.” A picture of Aki, sporting a long beard, loomed on the big screen behind Leonard.
Cue a huge roar in the dressing-room which could probably have been heard in Eyre Square. They were always going to know quite quickly and the second player named was one of their own. They went in search of Aki and found him in the gym. High fives all round. Connacht had their first Lion since Ciarán Fitzgerald captained the tourists in 1983.
À la the prodigal Simon Zebo in Munster, Aki is a hugely popular figure among Connacht supporters, especially younger ones, as well as team-mates and his selection will have been equally well received in Galway and beyond.
“The thing that people love about Bundee, what you see is what you get for a start, but every time he pulls on that jersey he gives you everything he’s got,” says their head coach Andy Friend.
“You would never criticise the bloke for not giving his all to his province, and that’s what people want, that when you’re pulling on that jersey it means something to you, you care about it and you’re giving everything you’ve got. He’s done that in spades and will continue to do it for us.”
There’s no doubt that the unfortunate injuries suffered by Manu Tuilagi and more recently George North helped open the door for Aki as a hard-carrying midfielder. But his typically all-action display on both sides of the ball in Ireland’s win over England caught Warren Gatland’s attention, as well as an under-rated passing game.
“He’s a genuine warrior,” says Friend. “He takes it very personally whoever is opposite him, so he wants to win that contest. Every single time he wants to win that contest, and then there’s the attributes which epitomise that.
“One, he’s fearless. Two, he’s very, very physical. So in defence he’ll get off the line and he’ll hit you and you’ll stay hit. Three, in attack, he’s got a great turn of speed, great feet, he can step left or he can step right, he can skip out of things and his passing game is excellent.
“He’s got a nice little short pass, he’s got a nice little offload if he gets through and he can throw the thing wide.”
During lockdown, all Connacht players were charged with making themselves better at something and Aki worked hard on his kicking game, which has been evidenced occasionally over the years. He kicked tennis balls, footballs and rugby balls against a wall.
“You haven’t seen it much with Ireland because they tend to have their 9s and 10s kicking more but for us we’ve seen a little bit of it this year, more so in training, but you’ll start to see that as another string to his bow which he’s added.”
Typical of his stop-start season, and compounding an entire Six Nations campaign in camp until the England game as Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose nailed down the Irish midfield positions for the first four rounds, Aki’s four-week suspension following the red card he received for a high hit on Billy Vunipola effectively became an eight-week suspension as Connacht’s fourth game in that timeframe was in Limerick last night.
He’ll be back for their Rainbow Cup games away to Benetton and at home to the Ospreys.
“He’s stayed on task,” says Friend. “He’s still the heartbeat of the changing room. The Lions has obviously given him a new pep in his step and he’s a pleasure to be around at the minute.
“He’s a mood changer and he has that amazing capacity to lift the mood of a group. He’s definitely an energy giver.”
The effervescent Aki usually is. Warren Gatland places much store on players’ characters in choosing a Lions squad and in Aki they’ll have a good tourist. New Zealand-born of Samoan extraction, whether with Connacht or Ireland, he invariably contributes off as well as on the pitch, be it buying into or contributing to their culture through leading sing-songs, inventing chants or sharing his passion for good coffee.
On Connacht’s extended week-long stay in Krasnoyarsk in Serbia during their title-winning Pro12 2015-16 season, which could have been a nightmare after flight cancellations but was turned into a positive, John Muldoon said of Aki: “He was brilliant on tour, constantly keeping the lads’ spirits up when everything was going against us, buying coffees and doing whatever else.
“In the airport we were playing a stupid game called Prudo and were laughing and messing. Bundee had music playing. Anybody walking by looked at us a little perplexed. We must have looked like a group of drunken lads coming back from a tour or a stag.”
This season, Aki brought in his own coffee machine to make coffees all round, on foot of which he organised a whip-round through their Whatsapp group to invest in one permanently.
Whatever some Little Irelanders might think, Aki has been a profound success as a project player. Despite all sorts of rumours concerning his impending departure, for seven seasons the 31-year-old has been loyal to Connacht despite offers from abroad, and is contracted with them for another two seasons.
“He was iconic before this but he will be absolutely iconic and his legacy will live on forever now, won’t it?” says Friend. “It would have anyway to be honest. But to have won a Pro12, another Connacht player that’s played for his country and now to be the province’s first British and Irish Lion since 1983, what a phenomenal achievement.”
That it is.