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17th Sep 2019

It wounds your heart to see the bullshit Bundee Aki already has to deal with

How can this still be happening?

Patrick McCarry

Bundee Aki

“You don’t get much opportunities where we are, but when you do get those opportunities you try and make the most of them.”

Bundee Aki will always be from South Auckland. That will never change. After three years living and playing in the West of Ireland, Aki considers himself a true Galwayman. It took him about a year to come to that conclusion and the past two to solidify it.

Who are we to argue with that?

At the end of 2017, World Rugby changed the rule that has allowed the likes of CJ Stander, Richardt Strauss, Jared Payne and Aki to play for Ireland. By the time the ‘residency rule’ switches – from three to five years before one is eligible to represent a country that was not of their birth – it will be 2021.

Some would have preferred if the residency rule had been totally obliterated but a common ground was found. It’s the sort of common ground that pleases no one entirely yet gives everyone a small taste of success.

The shame is, players like Bundee Aki will have to put up with the hand-wringing and harrumphing that Strauss, Stander, Payne and a few others have been forced to over the past few years.

The Kiwi centre, since making his Test debut in November 2017 was the new posterboy for foreign interlopers keeping our local lads out of the national team. Our national team, of course. No-one else’s. It could never be an Ireland team that could be cheered on and followed by people living and working here for years that consider themselves to be full members of our society. Imagine that.

Back in January 2017, when there was cribbing about Payne, who grew up in Tauranga, New Zealand, we wrote:

“Payne calls himself ‘a converted Irishman’ and who are we to argue. Anyone that comes to this country, invests themselves fully in it, works hard, engages with the wider community and contributes is entitled to call themselves Irish.”

Replace ‘Payne’ for ‘Aki’ and you have our counter-argument. It is sad that we have to wage this war again; to hear Aki decried on the national airwaves and read about it in the press, and online.

The accusation will also be bandied about that Aki is a mercenary – here to take money from Connacht and the IRFU and nothing more. It is true that he headed to Europe in the hopes of earning more money for himself, his wife Kayla and their two children.

Despite helping the Chiefs to Super Rugby title, in 2013, Aki’s chance of playing for New Zealand appeared to have passed him by. Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu where in-situ in the All Blacks midfield and Sonny Bill Williams was on the scene too. He had to put that dream aside and focus on the practicalities of life.

He left his wife and young children behind and, for almost two years, ploughed a lonely, determined furrow. all the while, he was asked about playing for Ireland but he preferred not to openly contemplate it as anything could happen before November 2017 ever arrived.

His original Connacht contract was set to expire in June of this year and there were plenty of suitors in England’s Premiership and France’s Top 14. In Galway, though, Aki had found a home away from home.

Signing a new deal, last season, he said:

“People chase money some times and it doesn’t work out. If you are enjoying rugby where you are why move?”

He could have followed the money and relocated to another part of Europe – he could have doubled his annual salary – but that old maxim returned. The one he told SportsJOE’s Dion Fanning at the beginning of 2016/17 – ‘When you do get those opportunities you try and make the most of them’.

Aki with his family after Connacht’s Challenge Cup win over Worcester in Galway.

He was enthused, as most Irish internationals have been, by his chats with Joe Schmidt. By his Connacht teammates that were in the Ireland set-up. By the deeds of Stander and Payne in recent Test matches. By the potential of doing something special with Ireland.

One of the only good things to arise from the accusatory mantle being passed to Aki, around the time of his debut, was that the likes of Stander and Payne can hopefully get a free run of it now. Two years on and it is now Jean Kleyn feeling the brunt of it, but Aki is still fielding questions about his eligibility over at the World Cup in Japan.

“Some people won’t be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey but I obviously felt like playing for this country, putting in the hard work, anything can happen,” he told reporters.

“They’re more than able to have their own opinion… All I’ve got to do is just make sure I put in a performance and do what I can do, and that’s just to perform on the field, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Well answered but embarrassing that, five years and 112 appearances for Connacht and Ireland on, Aki is still being asked to justify being part of this team.

Andrew Talaimanu, Aki’s old coach at Manurewa High School, has spoken of how much the local lad’s success means to the community in which he grew up.

“To some extent,” he said, “Bundee has always been a bit of a lighthouse for people to celebrate as a group.”

This World Cup, they’ll be cheering Aki on from homes and bars across South Auckland as the local boy represents them on the highest of stages. The jersey will be green, not black, but they won’t be any less proud.

Nor should we.

*Updated from piece first posted in October 2017


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