Bundee Aki interview: ‘I’m a different person with that jersey on’

Connacht’s Kiwi centre is feeling at home in the west and could play for Ireland in 2017

 

The Manurewa bank teller comes home from work, after another mindlessly long day, flicks on the box to see his ‘uce’ (Samoan for ‘bro’) playing Super Rugby. Tim Nanai-Williams is magnetically combining with older cousin Sonny Bill as the Chiefs run riot.

It’s 2012. The small yet stocky bank teller can’t help thinking, “I could be out there.”

Within a year, he was. Then, within another year, he was here.

Off the train at Ceannt station, turn right at Eyre Square and march up College road to the Sportsground. Typical winter’s day in Galway, one can’t help wondering how Bundee Aki copes with the chill.

“Last night I thought my roof was gonna come off with the rain! I’m real bad with the weather when it gets cold and windy.”

We have it on good authority that Tom Crean needed a good sun holiday now and again. So no bother. He copes because he has to.

Connacht beanies busy at work. Gavan Duffy front of office nowadays. Pat Lam going through a better-than-usual injury list “What you down here for?”

Bundee interview.

Mild guffaws. “Good luck with that.”

This provides milder encouragement; interviews are not supposed to be easy. However, any fears of a monosyllabic, eyes-to-the-floor, painfully shy Samoan are instantly dismissed by Aki’s forthcoming demeanour when we sit alone.

Different name

Beforehand he zips through a hardly probing Q&A when we learn Bundee isn’t some tribal Maori name. “Bundee is a short name for a different name. I got named after a doctor.”

A doctor?

“Yeah!”

He’s giggling away.

“It doesn’t mean anything. My mom let the doctor name me his first name.”

Does it mean something? “I’m not going there! The only people who know it are my school teachers. My coaches when I first started playing rugby, they called me Bundee because the other name was too long. I’ll keep Bundee.”

Ah, go on.

“No! No one knows it so I want to keep it that way.”

When asking questions in a group environment always expect the high hat.

Later we find out about his occasionally tempestuous upbringing in the south Auckland suburb of Manurewa. Images of this harsh urban terrain sparks to mind the brilliant 1994 film Once Were Warriors. But that’s like saying Dublin was neatly encapsulated by The Commitments.

“It’s a rugged old place but it’s getting better all the time. Back when I was there in school it was pretty rough, that’s for sure.”

We type “Manurewa” into Google news before clicking into stuff.co.nz: “Three students expelled after Manurewa brawl.”

“The brawl was organised on Facebook and video of around 15 schoolgirls fighting later circulated on the social media site. Two police officers could be seen trying to break up the fight while several schoolboys looked on. Police had to call in reinforcements when they were mobbed in the Manurewa car park.”

Aki’s entire family, including his two daughters, still live in New Zealand, which further indicates that rugby has provided a huge opportunity.

“I still go back because all my family are there. It’s a really good area. People outside looking in think it’s a pretty rough place but when you are in there it’s pretty cool. Good people. Good friends.”

Francis Saili brought an entourage with him to Munster. The Tuilagis arrived in Leicester in such numbers that baby Manu became a local boy.

“I’m here at the moment by myself. It’s tough knowing my family are back home. You just do what you have to do.”

By that he means embracing Lam’s new Connacht ways; that crest-thumping celebration down in Limerick last November was not mere bravado.

“I knew of Munster, I’d heard of Leinster and Ulster, but I hadn’t heard about Connacht. When I first played Munster here, when we beat them here, people outside the team were shedding a tear. I saw that.

“When we beat them at Thomond Park, you could just feel the emotions building up, right before the game, so when we did it, it was something special to be a part of it. It made me feel like I had been here a long time.”

Unlike Ben Te’o, who will never become an Irishman having agreed, after some lucrative speed dating, to fall madly in love with England next season, Aki can follow CJ Stander and Richard Strauss into the Ireland set-up in 2017.

We may even see him combine with Robbie Henshaw in that different shade of green. And, who knows, this evolving relationship might not split up this summer. It would take a person or persons to come up with the extra funds needed to keep Connacht’s most cherished sporting son away from the big smoke.

What we know for certain is the magic Henshaw the fullback and Aki the inside centre can conjure up.

In November as Connacht ended a winless streak in Thomond Park dating back to 1986, there he was on Henshaw’s inside shoulder to collect a stupendous offload before galloping the last few yards to the corner. With that Munster were buried.

Regardless of Henshaw’s final decision, Aki intends to stay the course out west. There is something similar in his rugby upbringing; the small school, the small provincial side that won the NPC and Ranfurly Shield (Counties Manukau Steelers), and the Chiefs outfit that won the Super Rugby title with Sonny Bill and then repeated the trick when Aki was promoted to replace the walking rugby brand on his return to league in 2013.

Barely missed a beat

The franchise, with a deeply spiritual team-first culture, barely missed a beat. That’s why it seemed so strange to see Aki leave New Zealand for, of all places, Connacht. He was mapped as a potential All Black. But, out of the blue, he was on the market.

Glasgow and Munster came in for him but the Connacht deal had more sugar on it. Lam knew to throw Mils Muliaina’s name into the deal.

That turned Aki’s head. But, still, why leave the Chiefs? Doesn’t make sense.

Family security is the overriding reason.

“Aw, there was a lot of different reasons why I left. I just thought at the time it was the right time to move to try to do something different. Rugby is only a short-term career. I talked to a few friends, a few coaches and just went with it. As soon as I made the decision, I have never looked back. It’s paying off really well.”

Even last night when your roof was nearly blown off?

“Apart from that. I’m enjoying my footie, even if it is different from back home.”

Skills suffer in Irish weather. If he tracked out from Salthill to, say, John Muldoon’s Portumna grasslands, there he would find skills development in its vital infancy. Small-ball stuff, unfortunately for rugby, rules supreme amongst the tribesmen.

But Lam has recruited wisely from New Zealand in this area too.

“Dave Ellis and Andre Bell are doing a lot of stuff with us, skill work. The boys are putting in the work to try and get better. After training we all work to get it right. When I first got here there was never something like that but we are building the culture and it’s paying off at the moment.”

Still, it nags, such an explosive bundle of energy being allowed to leave New Zealand?

“I tell you, it’s every kids dream in New Zealand to play for the All Blacks. I ain’t going to lie, that was my ambition: to be an All Black. But sometimes you got to come down to life and see what reality is and where you want to be. I have chosen this path. Let’s see how I go.”

Are you a man of faith?

“Yep.”

This is hardly a well-worn path you have chosen to walk? “It’s a leap of faith but when you take it you must do it full hearted. Put everything into it. Don’t look back.”

This sounds like a story familiar to the west of Ireland, just from another time. Boy leaves home to grow into a man by supporting his family financially.

Muliaina has moved to Italy but a pile of Kiwis are still in around the Connacht squad. “Yeah, Nathan White is also from the Chiefs, George Naoupu, Rodney Ah You, Jake Heenan, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Api Pewhairangi and Tom McCartney.

“Quite a few of us. We are building a culture like we had back at home . . .”

What does that actually mean?

“It’s everything. How you live your life, how you hang out with your boys, what you do apart from rugby, what you do together. When I first got here everyone was about themselves, doing their own thing, but now when we get a half day we are all sitting in the changing rooms wondering what we are going to do.”

There’s venom in the way he plays, which belies his friendly nature.

“Robbie notices that and some of the boys do as well. I’m a really good guy off the field, I love enjoying people’s company, but when it comes to game time, when I put on those boots, pull on that jersey, I’m a different person.

Second best

“I just switch it on. Whoever I’m playing against I want to make sure he comes out second best, that’s for sure.”

Aki talks about his desire to play Champions Cup next season but we are more interested in his All Black dream being transferred to an Ireland jersey.

“When I said it was every kid’s dream to play international rugby, it still is, I do have ambitions like that. But Connacht first. I’ve a few years to do it for them. Then we’ll see.”

Clearly a maturing specimen, he still sees the same Bundee Aki who hit the road two years ago.

“People who know me will say ‘He’s a clown, that’s for sure’. I love to have a bit of fun, bit of banter, but when it’s time to work I love to leave it all on the field.

“It’s not every day that you get to do what you love, and I love playing rugby. I could be working at the bank where I was before.”

Up until the Chiefs season? “Yeah, I was the bank teller. I had good work-mates but I couldn’t see myself doing it.”

Was that motivation? “Oh, it was. Looking at the boys you played with playing on TV I thought I could be there.’”

Soon he was there. Now he is here.

“I come from Counties, if you look at their background, they are Connacht. We used to get demolished, 40-odd points put on us, every single week. But look at them now. We won the championship before I left. There was a real turning point when Tana Umaga was there. We got promoted, made the semi-finals and then we won it. I like being called the underdogs because anyone can beat anyone really. Just put in the hard work. Just have faith in what you are doing.”

They said you would be a bad interviewee. “Ah, I don’t like doing them but that was good.”

Still don’t know his proper name though. Bundee will do.

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