Bundee Aki: ‘Whenever I put on that shirt I try and do the country proud’
Huge family support for centre on Australia tour – but getting tickets for them all will be tough
Bundee Aki at Tuesday’s Ireland Rugby press conference, Royal Pines Resort, Gold Coast, Queensland. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It seems safe to presume that no Ireland player will have more familial support on this tour than Bundee Aki, but the way he tells it, this comes with some pressure too.
“Yeah, I’ve got a few family here in Brizzy and a whole lot of them over in Melbourne and Sydney. They live here. My mum’s family are in Melbourne and all of my dad’s side are over in Sydney. So it’s about trying to keep my head in the game and trying to catch up with them at the appropriate time. They know I’ve got a bit of work to do before I try and catch up with them.”
With all of this comes a high demand for tickets, and Aki admits a tad wearily: “I’m struggling at the moment! I am struggling to get everybody in there.”
He does stress that “it’s always good to see them supporting me at the stadium” but, even so, when he goes into the numbers you feel for him.
“Well, this Brizzy game, I’m looking to get around 15 tickets already. The Melbourne one is a bit of struggle, there’s 25 people there that are already asking me for tickets and then obviously Sydney, all my Dad’s family, which is going to be a lot, but I don’t know what the numbers are.
“Uncles and aunties and cousins. It is amazing but it’s pretty stressful as well. I just try and leave it to my partner to try and sort it all out. She can get the tickets for them if she has to, I’ll just try and focus on what I need to do here.”
Aki has only played two games for Connacht since the Grand Slam finale against England at Twickenham, and none since the handsome home win over Leinster in John Muldoon’s farewell match six weeks ago. He was due to captain the Barbarians under Pat Lam against England but thought it best to rest a slight ankle injury.
Against England, he provided that break off Tadhg Furlong’s deftly disguised transfer and then picked out the supporting CJ Stander. That the two residency-qualified players combined for one of Ireland’s three tries that day was an apt double salvo to some of the “little Irelanders” out there.
I didn’t realise how big it is to win a Grand Slam and how hard it is to win one
Aki was one of the underrated stars of Ireland’s Slam, a veritable rock in defence, immense in his carries and with some deft and creative handling along the way. As well as tries against Italy and Wales, there was that superb break and assist for Earls’s try against the Azzurri, and his acceleration, footwork and strength saw him consistently take Ireland over the gain line. In all, he beat 16 defenders in five games; only Rob Kearney beat more.
Success has a tendency to follow Aki around. He won promotion with Counties Manukau and then their first ever Ranfurly Shield in 2013, and helped the Chiefs retain their Super Rugby title in 2013 before playing a starring role in Connacht’s 2016 Pro12 title. But the Slam topped the lot.
“I didn’t realise how big it is to win a Grand Slam and how hard it is to win one. I realised it in that room when we spoke at the [Twickenham] Captain’s Run that only two of the lads had won the Grand Slam, Rory Best and Rob Kearney. That was a bit of a surprise for me, knowing that all the lads that I was standing next to, who have been in the squad for a while, hadn’t won a Grand Slam.”
“To do it with them for the first time is something that I will cherish forever, it’s one of those things that you want to keep going; striving to get more and more trophies to win together as a team. It’s about bonding together as a group, I think we’re bonding really well at the moment. There will be lows, but it’s one of those things that helps you gel as a group.”
Aki played every minute until eventually busting himself before the hour mark against England, and his consistently high energy and defensive solidity was all the more important given the ravages that afflicted the Irish “13” jersey.
Having renewed his Connacht partnership with Henshaw on his barnstorming test debut last November against South Africa, a pattern was set when Henshaw was then ruled out of the Argentina game. Against the Pumas, Aki partnered Chris Farrell and then another debutant, Adam Byrne, for the last 20 minutes.
He combined with Henshaw again against France and Italy, although when the latter busted his shoulder, Keith Earls moved in from the wing to outside centre. Then, having renewed his partnership with Farrell against Wales, Aki partnered the fit-again Garry Ringrose against Scotland and England. That’s five different midfield partners in seven tests.
“I’m fairly new to international-level rugby,” the 28-year-old reminds us. Innately modest, he talks repeatedly of striving to be better, both individually and as a team, of how tough it will be at the end of Ireland’s season to beat Australia “in their own backyard”, and is on-message in referencing the Wallabies’ win here over the All Blacks last October as well as their array of X-factor players.
Aki is one of a clutch of players never to lose, thus far, for Ireland, but says: “There is a few of us, but genuinely I don’t think about that; just whenever I put on that shirt I try and do the country proud, do my family proud and put my best foot forward. Just like that you could easily lose that jersey or lose your position. It might be the last time wearing that jersey, so if I have a chance to wear it I want to make sure I give it everything and play like it’s my last game.”