Following a starring role in the Autumn Internationals, Ireland new boy BUNDEE AKI is set to take the Six Nations by storm. In an exclusive interview, he talks to STUART CLARK about his remarkable journey from Auckland to the Aviva, big hits, beating England, Siberian odysseys, Pro12 glory and going into tackles with his eyes shut!
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? I don’t think our insurance covers professional rugby players falling off rickety tables.”
Yours truly is sounding a note of health and safety caution as Hot Press snapper Kathrin Baumbach decides that in order to get the perfect shot of Bundee Aki he needs to be elevated to a height of roughly four feet, and damn the lawsuit if he topples from his none too reliable perch in Galway’s Connacht Hotel where the 27-year-old has just been put through his interview paces.
It’s fair to say there were quite a few dissenting voices last August when it was confirmed that the New Zealand-born centre was, after two storming Pro12/14 seasons with Connacht, turning his back on the All Blacks who may or may not have been about to call him up and declaring for Ireland.
The “He’s not really Irish” brigade were silenced 58 seconds into Aki’s Autumn International debut against the Springboks when he thwacked into Coenie Oosthuizen, who’s 37kg heavier than him, with such ferocity that the star South African tighthead had to be stretchered off.
“You don’t like to see anyone seriously injured, but putting a big tackle in like that in the first minute was a huge confidence booster,” Aki reflects. “There’d been a lot of nerves throughout the week. I hadn’t expected to be in the starting line-up against South Africa, and was shocked, to be honest, when Joe and all of the coaches and staff put their faith in me. My sleep patterns were horrendous. I kept waking up every half hour. Add in my chronic snoring, and my roommate in the Shelbourne, Ultan Dillane, must have been cursing me. I’ve roomed with Robbie Henshaw before, so next time Ultan will probably try to fob me off on him!”
A look of wonderment spreads across Bundee’s face as he recalls the match-day razamatazz.
“I’m used to Connacht fans being excited in the run-up to games, but the number of people waiting outside the hotel and the training pitches for an autograph before an Ireland match is phenomenal. On the day itself, you walk out of the Shelbourne – which is by far and away the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed in – and there’s a sea of green cheering you on to the bus. I was very conscious that I needed to embrace the occasion rather than being overawed by it, which I might have been a couple of years ago when I hadn’t played in so many big provincial games.”
After knocking poor Coenie Oosthuizen into the middle of next-week, Bundee landed 14 more defensive tackles against a side that his teammate, Robbie Henshaw, described to Hot Press as “being monstrous in terms of physicality. Nobody hits like they do.”
Asked what the day after was like, Aki winces and says, “The body felt it, alright. I thought international rugby would be a little more intense, but it’s a lot more intense both physically and speed-wise. I didn’t want to do anything special or fancy. It was just put my head down, and do the hard yards in order to help the team. I was running on adrenaline, really.”
Unlike the “After you, Claude…” approach countries adopt for international football friendlies – we doubt that the New Antalya Stadium will be too hell-like next month when Ireland journey to Turkey – you can’t play senior rugby at half pelt.
“No, you can’t,” Bundee agrees. “If you go into a game thinking, ‘I’ll play touch or warm up to it in the first half-hour with a soft tackle here, a soft tackle there’, you’re going to come out of it a poor second best and probably injured. A lot of the emphasis during the Carton House training sessions was on mental attitude. ‘Think, think, think while running with the ball… React quickly… Make the run… Be pro-active… anticipate…’ It’s hard when you’re fatigued and tired and everything’s going at 100 miles an hour, but that’s what needs to be going through your brain. In addition to Rory Best who you expect it of as captain, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander were all out there leading it. Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw both have very clear ideas of how the defensive side of the game needs to be played. I was there listening to as many people as possible. Whatever they wanted, I was like, ‘I’ve got that for you.’”
Having played in Connacht’s Pro12-winning team together – more of which anon! – Bundee has an almost telepathic connection with Robbie Henshaw when they kit out together.
“It’s funny you say that,” he laughs. “We went up against each other in a one-on-one defensive drill, and I knew exactly where Robbie was going with the ball and vice versa. Even though he’s younger than me, I look at Robbie as if he’s way older because he’s got the knowledge that comes from playing 30-plus times for Ireland. He knows it way more than I do. All I want to do is keep learning from him and the other lads.” Having watched them up close, who would he say are Ireland’s trickiest customers?
“Sean O’Brien is very strong and very physical. I’d far rather be playing with him than against him. You also know you’re in a game when you come up against guys like Cian Healy, Stuart McCloskey and Chris Farrell. We were talking about the Springboks being physical, but they’d have been aching too after playing us! Everybody’s level of rugby is right up there.”
In addition to meticulously executing Joe Schmidt’s game plan, Bundee knew running out at the Aviva that there’d be ructions if he didn’t make a decent fist of ‘Ireland’s Call’.
“It was obvious that the camera was going to linger on the new boy and, sure enough, there was a 10 or 15-second close-up of me! Did I know the words to ‘Ireland’s Call’ before I was called-up? Honestly? No, I didn’t! I had to be coached in the kitchen one night by my little girl, Adrianna, who was pretty stoked about me playing for Ireland. Having learned it at school, she was able to sing me the song and then brought the lyrics up on her phone, so we could have a go at it together. ‘That’s awful, daddie… That’s not quite so awful… That’ll have to do!’ She’s mad into her Irish as well, so if I’ve got a question about the language I ask her.
“It worked out really well because my brothers and my cousins had already been over for a month on holiday. I’d told them, ‘There’s a game but I really don’t know if I’ll be picked’, so it was as much of a shock for them as it was for me. It’s been a long old journey to get to where I wanted to be, so them being in the Aviva meant the world to me. The first people I told when I got named in the squad were my parents. I rang them up in the middle of the night and all they did was cry. We had a prayer over the ‘phone and then I let them get back to sleep!”
While he didn’t do any Will.i.am-style critiquing of his singing, Joe Schmidt was delighted with Aki’s sporting performance.
“Bundee got in some smashing tackles,” he noted. “He’s a very calm character and brings a fair bit of experience even though that was his debut today. He and Robbie Henshaw have a real understanding. That was part of what made it a little bit more comfortable for us in putting that combination together. I thought Bundee was super.”
The admiration society is mutual.
“Joe Schmidt is class,” Bundee beams. “He puts a lot of effort into studying the opposition, and is very precise in what he wants. When he’s telling you, ‘This is how we’re going to play’, you instinctively know in your head that he’s right. Joe doesn’t just lay down the law; he explains things, which is really cool. I’ve no doubt that if needed he could dole out a quality bollicking, but from what I’ve seen so far he’s pretty measured.”
Since his powerhouse performance against South Africa and another starring turn in the Argentina game, the conversation has been almost entirely about the damage a marauding Bundee Aki can do come February 3 when Ireland kick their Six Nations campaign off in Stade de France.
“I’m taking absolutely nothing for granted, but hopefully I’ll be involved. When the Six Nations schedule came out, a lot of people skipped to the last fixture, which is England away at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day! My attitude is that any team is capable of beating any other team. It depends on preparation and how you’re feeling that particular day. I have no doubt that the emotions and feelings will shoot up through the roof when Ireland plays England. England are a great team, but they’re beatable. Don’t ask me what their weaknesses are because off the top of my head I can’t think of any, but rest assured Joe Schmidt and his people are on it as we speak. The big advantage they have over other teams is their strength in depth. There are outstanding England players in the Premiership who’ve yet to receive a call-up. I share an agent with Dylan Hartley who plays with a lot of heart and leaves everything on the field. That’s probably true of all the England guys at the moment; they never know when they’re beaten.
“Scotland at the Aviva will be another tricky one. They absolutely belted Australia in the Autumn Internationals, and almost managed to beat New Zealand as well at Murrayfield. They’re playing really good footie at the moment, so if you’re looking for an underdog they’re your guys.” A little Ireland dickie-bird tells me that Bundee Aki is an extremely sore loser.
“Ask the lads about when we play cards, and they’ll tell you I cheat to win!” Bundee laughs again. “Whether it’s Monopoly or rugby, I want to come first and have done ever since I was a kid. The guys get angry with me because the mini-games we play in training aren’t supposed to be taken too seriously, and I’m going all out.”
As a manager, I’m not sure I’d want a player of mine to be a good loser. Who or what gets kicked in the Aki house after a defeat?
“I take it really hard when we lose,” he confesses. “Save for the odd bit of cursing, I tend to stay quiet in the dressing-room after a bad game. No one gets kicked, but my family know me well enough to leave me be until about Tuesday! I’ll sleep alone, and hopefully wake up in the morning in a slightly better mood, but there are no guarantees.”
Bundee received a crash course in Irish culture when he was invited out on a seisún by the Henshaw family.
“Have you met Robbie’s father, Tony? He’s a real character, who plays loads of instruments, which I imagine is where Robbie gets his interest in music. I tell him, ‘Man, you’re strangling that accordion!’ but he’s actually very good.”
Bundee’s gift to the Connacht dressing room is a Samoan clapping song that gets performed after training.
“It comes from the tradition of everybody being sat around the house, and someone telling you, ‘You’re doing one clap, two claps…’ or whatever. There are different sequences, which keep building until you’ve got this really big song. The lads started laughing their heads off when I showed them how to do it, so it’s become an alternative to ‘The Fields Of Athenry’, which is the big Connacht song.”
He reluctantly takes them off when he goes on the pitch, but otherwise it’s rare to find Bundee Aki without a pair of Beats By Dr. Dre clamped to his head.
“I always have my own music. I start off with real nice, slow tunes to chill myself out. As it gets closer to kick-off, I start picking up the pace with a bit of rap and hip hop. When I’m sat in the dressing-room I go back into my chilled music – I’ve a massive soft spot for UB40 and went to see Drake in Dublin this year.”
Having grown-up in Auckland, where Jonah Lomu was among his role models, can Bundee explain why New Zealanders are genetically better at playing rugby than everybody else?
“People in New Zealand are introduced to the rugby ball at a very early age. Your older brothers and cousins literally toss it into the pram, so by the time you’re crawling you know how to handle it. Like Brazilian kids with footballs and Irish kids with hurleys, it’s an instinctive thing. I had a vague idea about Gaelic football from watching Aussie Rules, but with hurling I was like, ‘Oh hell, I can’t believe how fast this is!’ I went to the All-Ireland Final this year between Galway and Waterford and my head was going from side to side trying to keep up with the game. You can see why kids grow up wanting to be the next Joe Canning or one of those other guys who play at the very top level. I was lucky enough to have two of the greatest rugby players of all time, Jonah Lomu and Sitiveni Sivivatu, as my idols growing up. Jonah went to Wesley College, which is the derby for our school. I met him when another old club of mine, Counties Manukau, won the ITM Second Division and he was such a quiet, sound fella. How could you watch those guys playing for your province and then the All Blacks and not want to be like them?”
Is Bundee any good with a round ball?
“No, terrible!” he winces. The guys call me ‘The Two Left-Feet’ because I kick it one way and it goes another. It’s amazing that New Zealand have made the soccer World Cup in Russia, but in Auckland rugby was totally the number one sport.”
This will come as a shock to Connacht fans, but theirs isn’t the club that Bundee and his Manurewa High School pals grew up wanting to play for.
“I’d heard of Munster, Leinster and Ulster, but had no idea who or what Connacht was until the opportunity arose in 2014 to play for them,” he recalls. “I got some high-grade intel from Mils Muliaina, who’d played for the same Auckland team as me, The Chiefs, that they were trying to get me so I was able to bring myself up to speed on the club. Obviously, Pat Lam, who’s very highly respected in New Zealand, being coach was a huge attraction and we got close pretty quick. My first day there he said, ‘There’s a lot to learn’, and then threw me in the deep end against Ospreys. As a fellow islander, he went out of his way to make me feel welcome.”
The vision Pat Lam sold him probably didn’t include Connacht’s Leicester City-like winning in May 2016 of the Pro12, with Leinster being put to the sword 20-10 in the Edinburgh final. Bundee knew something special was afoot early in the season when the squad got stranded in Russia.
“Whoever put a bet on us winning the Pro12 that year is still counting their winnings! Anyway, in November 2015 we braved subzero temperatures – it was minus-25 or something - to play a Challenge Cup game against Enisei-STM in Siberia. We won 31-14 and were about to catch our charter flight home when word came through that it had been cancelled. Much to the annoyance of wives and girlfriends, we ended up spending three extra days in the middle of nowhere. What happens on tour etc. etc., but we had the craic and got to know each other a lot better.
“I’m not saying I knew we were going to win the Pro12,” Bundee continues, “but the previous season we’d come really close to winning some big games only to have them slip away from us in the last few minutes. We figured out that we just weren’t being ruthless enough. I actually felt a bit sad when that Siberian trip ended, and we flew black in three groups to Amsterdam, Paris and London and from there to Dublin. It was one of the greatest times we ever had.”
Former Donegal GAA supremo Jim McGuinness, who’s just quit his assistant role with Beijing Sinobo Guoan in the Chinese Super League, told me that as a manager you have to be equal parts mum and sergeant major.
“Yeah, Pat was a bit of both with me. He had a go at me on a few occasions for things I did wrong. I had some disciplinarian issues, which I won’t be repeating! He’s a great coach and, latterly, a family friend. His wife, Stephanie, is another of those people who welcome you with open arms. There’s a great story about her interviewing the Bristol chairman and chief executive before she’d let Pat go there! I wasn’t very happy at first when he announced that he was leaving Connacht because we’d built this great relationship but then Kieran Keane, another Kiwi, took over as a coach and put his own stamp on the job. I talked to a few guys who’d played under KK and they said, ‘The guy’s black and white. If he’s pissed off with you, you’ll know about it, and if you need comforting, he’ll be the first to stick an arm around you.’ That’s exactly how he’s approached us. Different coaches see different things, and KK’s worked on aspects of my game that I didn’t think needed working on, but clearly did. What are they? I’m not going to say because some opposition player’s going to read this and say, ‘Right, that’s how we take him out of the game!’ I’ll admit to my weaknesses in private, but not in print!”
Those weaknesses weren’t mentioned when England legend, Will Greenwood, said recently: “We have a stick of dynamite here. Aki is a monster who can run and pass, loves the confrontation but does not over-chase the big hit and is aware of his role. If you go down the channel, run the ice bath before you do. He has a great work-rate and is a superb handler.”
“Jesus, I don’t think I’m a monster yet!” says Bundee, turning red with embarrassment. “I always think of myself as the smallest guy on the field. If you look at the likes of Stuart McCloskey, Chris Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph and Jonathan Davies, they’re three times the size of me and skillful too. I’m so un-monster-like that I still go into tackles sometimes with my eyes closed, but if somebody of Will Greenwood’s stature thinks I’m doing okay that’s a huge compliment.”
With thanks to Connacht Hotel, Old Dublin Road, Galway (091 381 200/theconnacht.ie) for their kind hospitality