Who schooled who when Bundee Aki met Manu Tuilagi in 2007?
Ireland centre looking forward to playing with his former Connacht team mate Henshaw again
Bundee Aki: “He [Tuilagi wasn’t that big back then but very strong, as strong as he is now. I think he rolled over Josh [Matavesi] that day.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Bundee Aki versus Manu Tuilagi, the rematch.
One previous meeting of these powerful number 12’s happened circa 2007 in an English fee paying schools derby between Cornwall’s Truro College, where Aki was on scholarship, and John Cleveland College where Tuilagi had landed because the older brothers, Alesana in particular, were rolling over poor souls in the Premiership and Europe – ask Shane Horgan – for the Leicester Tigers.
Both of Samoan heritage, Manu was poised to become the first Tuilagi to declare for England, Aki was about to become a father.
“I remember playing against Manu over in England when I went to school at Truro. He was on the wing. It was me and Josh Matavesi [the Fijian international currently with Newcastle Falcons] in the same team. I didn’t go up against Manu, I stayed away from him!
“He wasn’t that big back then but very strong, as strong as he is now. I think he rolled over Josh that day.”
He remembers who won.
Did Tuilagi have to worry about Bundee?
“Ah look at photos of me back then, I was a very skinny kid.”
Their rugby paths diverged with Aki returning to Auckland for a stint working in the bank before his talent and good fortune saw him rediscover the professional game, shining for the Chiefs as Sonny Bill Williams’ replacement during their run to the 2013 Super Rugby title.
He then surprised many in New Zealand who saw him as an All Black contender by signing terms with Connacht.
In contrast, Tuilagi exploded through the ranks, making his debut for Leicester in 2009 age 18 against the touring Springboks. Within four years he shunted Brian O’Driscoll from the bench in the British and Irish Lions match-day squad for the deciding Test in Australia.
A year later, while Aki was beginning his three-year residency in Galway to become Irish qualified, Tuilagi was causing Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith all sorts of hassle when confirming his arrival on the global stage.
“I saw him back in New Zealand when I was back there watching footy and he is a dangerous player. He is a very good ball carrier and very fast as well for a big boy. Coming back from injury he obviously wants to put a statement out there and he has been playing good footy in the Champions Cup . . He will be a big ball carrying threat. It will be interesting.”
It’s Aki’s job to halt Tuilagi.
“Hopefully it’s a team job! I’ll try my very best. It’s cool to see him playing again.”
That 2014 tour of New Zealand remains the high water mark of Tuilagi’s career that still promises so much. Over the next five seasons he only made two brief appearances off the bench for England as his body continually succumbed to injuries.
Their fortunes reversed, Aki’s rise through the well-stocked Irish midfield ranks has been noticeable for his durability, with his impact so impressive last season that Joe Schmidt finally has to pick Robbie Henshaw at fullback to get another prized possession on the field.
“Yeah, look, Robbie is a class player,” said Aki. “He has played fullback for Connacht as well and he is obviously a really good player. Whatever position Joe puts him he puts everything into it so it’s good.”
Henshaw at fullback revives an old combination from 2016 that saw Connacht finally win in Thomond Park thanks to a brilliant try; Henshaw arrived from deep to straighten the line, stepping Keith Earls, and offloading from the floor to send Aki diving over one-handed at the corner flag.
“It was a massive win. We obviously know what he can do at the back. He is an attacking threat just as much as he is out front.”
So, it is finally happening; Manu Tuilagi is starting in an England jersey again while Aki, Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are on the field together.
“You have the World Player of the Year right next to you, you can’t complain. Johnny’s playing out of his boots at the moment and Ringer too.”