"Of the 37, Bundee Aki would be my 37th most expected selection and my worst rated"
One would swear Warren Gatland had selected a club rugby trundler, instead of a 31-times capped Test player and Grand Slam winner.
"Did we ever think that the name Bundee Aki would appear in a Lions tour party?"
Let us say here that we were surprised when Bundee Aki, after Josh Adams, became the second name read out by Jason Leonard when he announced the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa. We did not see it coming.
Unlike Stephen Jones [quoted above], though, we can understand why Gatland and his coaches selected one of the hungriest and meanest competitors out there. If Manu Tuilagi had not proved his fitness, and the Lions wanted a physical presence in midfield, giving Aki the call-up is not a stretch.
Jones was not pleased, however, and former England and Lions outhalf Stuart Barnes was straight up dismissive of the Connacht and Ireland star, when discussing the squad selections on The Ruck.
On the latest House of Rugby Ireland episode [LISTEN from 1:30] host Eimear Considine discussed the Lions midfield choices with Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan and South African reporter Craig Ray.
McFadden and Madigan both spoke about how Gatland and his coaches were going with brute force selections with a couple of those midfield calls.
South African journalist Craig Ray, meanwhile, noted how players like Bundee Aki and Chris Harris were picked in order to shut down the likes of Damian De Allende and Pieter Steph du Toit.
On House of Rugby UK, meanwhile, former Wales and Lions prop Adam Jones went so far as to predict Aki would start in a Lions Text XV alongside Ireland teammate Robbie Henshaw.
For those of you that are asking…
🦁 Ray McLoughlin (1966, 1971)
🦁 John O’Driscoll (1980, 1983)
🦁 Ciaran Fitzgerald (1983)
🦁 Bundee Aki (2021) pic.twitter.com/ruzVL4fNc7
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) May 6, 2021
On The Ruck, Times columnists Stephen Jones and Stuart Barnes were practically lamenting the inclusion of Aki, a player then Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt built that 'Team of the Year' 2018 around.
Asked if he would ever have predicted Aki featuring in a Lions squad, Barnes drew a breath and replied, "No.
"When you've already got Robbie Henshaw, who is a powerhouse, in theory, Bundee Aki just never crossed my mind.
"One of the reasons he didn't was I don't think Bundee has been that brilliant. Bundee Aki is fit. Manu Tuilagi is not fit, and it's an attempt to fight fire with fire. I understand where Warren Gatland is coming from, but I wouldn't say it's a very good selection. Of the 37, he'd be my 37th most expected selection and my worst rated."
Jones said he asked Gatland how close he had come to waiting on Tuilagi to prove his fitness. "Very close," was the reported reply from the Kiwi.
To Alex Lowe, their colleague, the Aki selection resembles that of Ben Te'o, another surprise call, in 2017. He says he cannot see him getting in the Lions Test squad.
Te'o, for the record, was selected for the Lions after making only eight Test appearances for England, and only one start. Aki has played 31 times for Ireland in four years, with all of them as a starter.
Te'o started the First Test against the All Blacks in 2017 and had a decent game, but was dropped for the next Test as Gatland brought Johnny Sexton back and dropped Owen Farrell into midfield. He did appear off the bench in the Third Test, which ended in a draw.
In fairness to Barnes, Aki is up there with Elliot Daly and Jack Conan as least expected Lions selections. As for 37th worst rated, that is not fair on a quality player.