Bundee Aki not too bothered by All Black challenge
Marmion says his Auckland-born Connacht team-mate will be fired up for a special Test
Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion with Ireland fan Jennifer Malone at Carton House. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Bundee Aki was a contender. The 28-year-old could well be an All Black by now.
It certainly looked possible when he seamlessly filed a sizeable gap left at the Chiefs by Sonny Bill Williams returning to Rugby League in 2013.
The queue to the summit of New Zealand rugby is long and full of pitfalls.
Not even Williams, a Kiwi superstar in three sports – rugby league, rugby union and boxing – could budge Ma’a Nonu from the national No 12 jersey.
Ryan Crotty was also established while Ngani Laumape – Nonu’s clone it seems – was a rising talent.
Auckland-born but of Samoan heritage, Aki had options.
Twice he spurned the lucrative mercenary option of joining a French club. Instead, he sought to play for Ireland by signing for Connacht in 2014 and re-signing in 2016, reportedly because playing international rugby at the highest possible level his ability would permit was the primary aspiration.
“Playing the All Blacks won’t bother him too much,” said Connacht team-mate Kieran Marmion. “It will probably just fire him up a bit more. We expect Bundee to go straight into them, he won’t hold back. He will relish the challenge, it will be a pretty good spectacle to watch.”
There is plenty of heat on Connacht’s two Ireland starters this Saturday night against the world champions at a jam-packed Aviva Stadium. Marmion is rewarded after a competent showing against Argentina for what he readily accepts is the biggest game of his life, all in the knowledge he’s keeping the jersey warm until Conor Murray’s rehabilitation is complete.
“Conor’s got a lot of skills that are a lot better than mine,” the scrumhalf honestly admitted, “and I’ve got the odd skill that might be a bit better than his.”
The spotlight will shine brightest upon Aki because it’s guaranteed he will seek out all and any black-clad opponent from minute one. That’s how he spear-headed Connacht’s run to the Pro 12 title in 2016. That’s how he always plays.
“I roomed with Bundee last week,” Marmion continued, “He chatted quite a bit to me about it [this game] and I know he can’t wait to get out there and have a shot at these guys.
“I am sure he will know he needs to stay calm and not be stupid. I am sure he is smart enough to that, as well. They will come looking for him but he has played enough rugby and has enough experience to know not to do anything stupid. He is a tough lad so he will get on with it.”
This past week a New Zealand journalist, Gregor Paul, wrote that Aki was part of an “Irish-fusion team, with the Kiwi element within it no longer viewed as happy-go-lucky opportunists, but men who have stabbed their homeland in the back”.
Ger Gilroy on Newstalk diligently quizzed Paul about not mentioning the plundering of Pacific Island teenage talent by New Zealand schools. Paul was adamant this activity is so far removed from the All Blacks that it has nothing to do with them.
Scotty Stevenson, another journalist on tour, deemed Paul’s article last week about Brad Shields opting for England, where his parents are from, over an outside shot at the All Blacks as “mean-spirited”.
“Bundee was there in my first year at the Chiefs,” said Damian McKenzie. “He is a great player and he is obviously doing really well over here. It’s awesome to see him in the Irish team and playing some great rugby.”
One more Kiwi, Irish citizen Joe Schmidt, made yet another compelling argument in Aki’s favour.
“Bundee’s popularity comes from everyone knowing he is going to give 100 percent. Was Jerome Kaino not 100 per cent ready to play for the All Blacks because he was born in a foreign country [American Samoa]? Or Chris Masoe [Samoa]or Joe Rokocoko [Fiji]?
“Having coached all those guys they were very ready to play for the All Blacks. Bundee Aki is very ready to play for Ireland.”