'When I think of Ireland, I think of Galway' - The making of Bundee Aki, Good Bugger and Galwayman
At first all he could see was rain. Before he left Auckland, they joked with Bundee Aki about the weather where he was going, but he wasn’t going for the weather. He might not have been sure where he was going, but he knew why he was going.
He thinks it rained for those first two weeks. Every morning he would get up and look out over this strange place and wonder when it would stop. For two weeks, he thought it never would. But he wasn’t here for the weather and, anyway, it wasn’t the first time he found himself a long way from home.
You have to get over yourself, he says, when he thinks of those first few weeks in Galway. He had chosen this destination on the other side of the world and now he would make it work. He would get over himself. He’d been doing that his whole life and, in getting over himself, he would bring people with him. He always had.
It’s a sunny day in Galway and Bundee Aki is sitting on the terraces at The Sportsground, doing one last interview to mark the launch of the new Connacht kit before his media obligations are done for the afternoon.
Pat Lam used to joke that he never told Bundee about the dog track before he signed, but the place looks different to him today and it’s not just because of the sunshine.
His family moved here this summer and if Auckland is a long way away, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. But sometimes he remembers how badly he once missed home, how badly he missed the place he grew up, no matter what people thought of it.
“When outside people look in they see South Auckland as a rough area but to us living there, it’s like living in Galway really. It is rough here and there, but I think people know each other everywhere and they are quite friendly and stuff like that and you feel safe. You don’t get much opportunities where we are, but when you do get those opportunities you try and make the most of them."
Andrew Talaimanu wasn’t sure where to start. There were 2,500 kids in Manurewa High School and there was one rugby team with about 17 players who turned up when it took their fancy.
Manurewa in South Auckland is a suburb with a reputation and the kids Talaimanu saw were tough. He knew that, it didn't bother him because there was talent too. There were a lot of kids in Manurewa High School of Polynesian origin and that meant a lot of rugby talent. Talaimanu was a professional rugby coach. His own children had started attending the High School and Talaimanu was on the board of trustees. So he decided to try and organise the rugby side of things.
“As a professional coach, I could see the potential but I was concerned that nothing was happening with all these kids,” he says, when he looks back on it.
Talaimanu started a rugby academy for the 13-year-olds who were just starting at the school. In the second year of the academy, he first came across Bundee Aki.
Bundee was one of those guys people might describe as colourful. Andrew Talaimanu would provide one of the opportunities in life that Bundee Aki would be smart enough to take. He says Bundee was one of those kids who was always on the verge of annoying his teachers. He lived in a world where the choices he made could have serious consequences and if Talaimanu’s plan was to transform the rugby played in the school, he knew that it would have a profound effect on the lives of the players as well.
“They used it as an anchor,” Talaimanu says of the academy which provided direction for these players. They received coaching from Talaimanu and others including Ian Foster, who is now the assistant coach for the All Blacks.
Bundee wasn’t big, but this wiry frame contained a fearless character. “He doesn’t look like a big guy but he’ll tackle someone and they don’t often get up. He’s got a huge heart and he’s not afraid of confrontation,” Talaimanu says.
Nobody questioned his commitment on the field, but there were other demands made on the players in the academy.
“They were asked to train early in the morning, they were asked to abide by a code of discipline which was fairly fundamental but which meant that if you didn’t perform at school, if you didn’t achieve at least your level, you weren’t given the privileges to play rugby and be part of the academy group.”
That was the difficult part as far as Bundee Aki was concerned. He was never one for school, never one for sitting still. “He got top marks at playing rugby and eating school lunch,” Talaimanu says.
The rest was a struggle. Rugby was the thing that guided and protected them, Talaimanu says, but the school and the academy could only do so much. There was a world outside and in it, Bundee Aki and the rest would have to make their choices.
“They lived in an area that was very tough. It had gangs and it was a place to be street smart and street tough. Bundee was part of a very positive gang and he got an opportunity to see the intersections of life that go left or right and he made some good decisions. He made some bad ones, like kids do, but he had good support from his family and he kicked on.”
The personality that would make such an impact in Connacht was present at that stage. “To some extent Bundee has always been a bit of a lighthouse for people to celebrate as a group,” Talaimanu says. “The togetherness is a part of his culture, family is a big, big part of his culture.”
Bundee Aki comes from a family of seven, four sisters and two brothers. He was the second oldest in a strong and proud family of faith who all still live in Auckland. Bundee is the one who has left, Bundee is the one who returns and he jokes about the contrast between the quiet of Galway and the noise of the family home.
As he made his way through Manurewa High School, he needed the support of that family and the family he found through rugby. Family, in one form or another, is something that matters more than anything. It would be something he would encounter years later when he came to a place he knew nothing about.
But before Galway, rugby would take him somewhere else he didn’t know much about.
Hot Dog Sandwiches
A couple of weeks ago Ricky Pellow bumped into Will Davis at a wedding in England. As usual, they began to talk rugby and soon they were reminiscing about a player they had watched leave England with concerns that life was going to fell a boy with an irrepressible spirit.
Davis and Pellow knew Bundee Aki when he came to England but they were able to talk about him with delight because of what he had done and all he had achieved after he left Truro College.
If Galway took a bit of getting used to, Bundee Aki had tried it all before. When he took up Pat Lam’s offer, it wasn’t the first time he had journeyed across the world in an attempt to make something of himself.
When he was 16, Bundee Aki left his family and went to the other side of the world. Truro College in Cornwall had a rugby placement programme and Bundee would stay there for two years. He would learn the game and learn about life. That was the plan until life came along.
Ricky Pellow and his wife put Bundee up when he arrived in England for two years. They took in Kyle Armstrong and Hanno Dirksen too, but they never had a player as talented as Bundee. He might have been one of the most mischievous too.
Every day when he walked into school, Bundee would pop his head round a door and say good morning to a few people in the office where Pellow, who is skills coach at Exeter Chiefs, was working.
“Whenever he walked past the door he’d have a cheeky smile on his face and we’d be thinking ‘What’s he done? What’s he done?'”
Bundee Aki arrived as a typical 16-year-old who knew a lot and knew nothing at all. In Truro, Bundee and the others would have to fend for themselves. The Pellows would put them up and provide food, but they would have to cook it themselves. “We just didn’t let them burn down the kitchen.”
As part of their development as players they would be educated about nutrition, but it might have been the education of a rugby player that Bundee Aki took longest to absorb.
Pellow remembers returning one night and finding them all eating “hot dog sandwiches”, after which they received another explanation about the importance of nutrition.
In every other way, the character that would light up Connacht could be glimpsed in the teenage Bundee Aki. “He did everything flat out,” Pellow remembers. “Off the field, he was cheeky, He had a side where he wanted to let his hair down. With Bundee, his character made him a better rugby player as well. Sometimes trying to keep his exuberance in check was all we could do.”
But this exuberance, this instinctive ability to be the “lighthouse” didn’t mean it was easy being so far from home. “It was quite hard going to a new school and a new environment,” Aki says of the world he found himself in.
He made friendships with people like Pellow and Fiji’s Josh Matavesi that have endured and he played in the Daily Mail Cup for Truro, but his family was a long way away.
Pellow remembers when Christmas came, Bundee found it especially difficult. He spent Christmas with a family in Cornwall, but it was tough when he wanted to be someplace else.
Aki spent a season at Truro College but then came news from home which changed everything for the teenager. Fatherhood came early to Bundee Aki and with it came decisions which would shape his life.
“At the age of 18, who would expect to have a kid? But I knew I would have to turn my screws around," he says now.
"I’m not a little kid anymore, I’m a man. I’m a dad now. I think it helped me mature more than anything. It made me aware of everything else. Back then, I was a kid who just wanted to enjoy life."
Back in New Zealand, life became more serious. Pellow remembers the conversation at Truro College when Aki left. The teenager who did everything flat out would now learn about life but at what cost?
“We did feel that if someone didn’t look after him, he would be lost to the game,” Pellow says.
For a while, that happened. Bundee returned and played some rugby, but then he started to work in a bank. The way he tells it, it's hard to see it as a career that would have been for him.
“I enjoyed it but then it got boring after a while, sitting there watching TV when all your friends were playing rugby.”
Rugby was an escape, but it would now also have to be the solution. He was a father to a baby girl and he took his responsibilities seriously. Nobody who knew Bundee Aki, nobody who understood his upbringing and the importance of family had ever doubted that.
“Who knows if I didn’t have my little one, I might have been somewhere else,” he says. “It made me aware that I had to live my life differently. My little one was relying on me now. When you’re young you always rely on your parents, so then you become more independent and you have to try and do something on your own. You’ve a little one looking at you so you’ve got to provide for her.”
So the bank provided security, but for a boy whose exuberance was an essential part of his personality, the grind was going to be difficult.
“When I was working I missed rugby way too much, especially seeing all your close friends making it. It was a bit of motivation.”
So rugby would have to provide the answers and Bundee Aki would find them.
"For a whole year, I was on not even a minimum wage, I wasn’t getting paid at rugby, doing half days at work, trying to juggle rugby, after work go back to club training. It was a hard time for me. I was hardly home. Wake up at six in the morning, go to training then to work and from work to training until about 9 o’clock and I did that for a whole year."
There was a motivation. His daughter Armani-Jade was the motivation and the knowledge, as his team-mates told him, that the good times would come.
"It was quite tough not being able to get paid that much. But the boys would tell me that when you make it really big you can earn a bit of a coin. Hard work pays off really. Without pain, you won’t get any gain."
He was playing for Counties Manakau and his second year playing with them, he made it to Super Rugby when the Chiefs offered him a contract. Andrew Talaimanu knew their coaches Dave Rennie and Wayne Smith well and knew what they looked for.
“They want good people, rather than just good players. Good buggers as they call it. They could see that Bundee was a likeable character prepared to work hard."
Bundee trained with a group that included Sonny Bill Williams and if this was a challenge, he embraced it, understanding what it would mean.
"You had to do a lot of extra work and stuff like that, I adapted to it. I was quite lucky to play off a few good players that actually helped me as well as the coaches."
When Sonny Bill left, Bundee Aki was seen as one of those who could replace him for the Chiefs and, eventually, for the All Blacks, but soon there was another offer that would involve further change. Pat Lam wanted him to come to Connacht.
“Sometimes you can see that the way ahead is a bit blocked," Talaimanu says. "Sometimes if a silver coin crosses your palm that also is attractive to secure your future for your family.”
Aki would work hard for his family's future, but he would also embrace this new challenge with the spirit he brought to everything he had done.
If he wanted to play for the All Blacks, he would have to return one day, but maybe this was the route that allowed him to look after his family and to make his way in the world. "I wouldn't say New Zealand is the middle of nowhere," Talaimanu says, "but if you stand on a box, you can see the middle of nowhere."
Aki would head for a new challenge in the old world.
"The vision that Pat had for the team was pretty cool, like. I wanted a new challenge for myself. I just thought with a lot of good players around me at the Chiefs, I could easily just slack off and let the boys who are ahead of me do a job that I don’t need to do. For me, it was being realistic about where I was in rugby, where do I see myself if those big guys were there? For me, it was reality. Can I be at the Chiefs behind some of the other players or can I come here and make a statement? Try and make something new."
“You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit”
Bundee Aki arrived in Ireland for the beginning of the 2014/15 season. He was a father of two now and he had responsibilities. But at his new club, he would also remind his new team-mates of theirs. Bundee would embrace the local culture but he would bring his own culture too. He might have learned about being a good bugger at the Chiefs, but he had never forgotten about going flat out, he’d never forgotten to take all he could from training, from rugby and from life.
“You’ve got to make sure you train how you play and you’ve got to be able to challenge each other, and expect high standards from each other. That’s what you strive for. When I first got here, there weren't many challenges. The boys were too scared to challenge each other. I think they were scared to demand a good pass, demand a good kick, demand good stuff from training.”
Bundee Aki would be part of the process of showing them a different way but he made his way slowly, learning about the team, learning about the culture and embracing it the only way he knew how.
His family were in New Zealand for his first season in Connacht, so while it was tough, it allowed him to concentrate on rugby as well.
In his second year, he asked more from his team-mates, while always asking more of himself as well.
“It took a while because I think some of the boys took it personally, but they all soon came to their senses. It’s only making yourself better, it’s only making myself better and when you do that, the standards just lift up easy. You can see the standards of our team, they’ve lifted up massively. I think the boys know now, it’s not to try and annoy you or to try and be on your arse. It’s just trying to make them better and to try and make myself better.”
And Connacht got better and better. The Pro12 triumph last season seemed to be propelled by the force that was Bundee Aki, but he seemed driven too by the understanding he had for this place he found himself in.
The forces combined to create an unforgettable season. “He’s always had a spark in his eye," Talaimanu says. "He fears no-one. Put him on the field, he’ll mark anyone.”
Here he was in the middle of things, the fa’aluma, the irrepressible force who gets over himself quickly and takes people with him as he does. This was part of what Bundee Aki understood by family.
“In a rugby team or in a high school, at a local club or at Connacht, it’s important that the group believe in each other,” Tailamanu says.
“Local traditions, celebrations, smiling and laughter as things are going well. It doesn’t surprise me that he would understand some of the base cultures of the locality and understand how important it is for the community to grab on the coat-tails of that success. He doesn’t look like an Irish boy born in Galway, but he would grab hold of that family oneness. That is a big part for where he grows up.”
We'd wager he is still singing it https://t.co/RiA5vuJEtG
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) May 30, 2016
Pat Lam would appreciate that too, Talaimanu says. Aki would have been an essential part of changing the emphasis. As he puts it, “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit.”
The season starts on Saturday and this year may be full of questions about Bundee Aki’s future. Talaimanu believes it will be in Ireland, but it is a subject that the player was become bored of discussing when he sat down to reflect on his life.
For now, he will go flat out as he has always done, with those like Ricky Pellow and Andrew Talaimanu willing him on. When Pellow and Will Davis talked a couple of weeks ago at the wedding, they found themselves revelling in the success the wiry kid who had to be monitored to make sure he didn’t set fire to the kitchen had made of his life.
“The most pleasing thing is he has a lovely family and he’s able to provide for them,” Pellow says.
His family are in Galway now, with his youngest Adrianna starting school as well. They are learning about the weather, looking to Bundee Aki for guidance as so many naturally do.
His wife is enjoying it, helped by the partners of the Connacht players who have helped her settle a long way from home.
He went back to New Zealand this year and when they asked him about Galway, he tells them about the dog track at the Sportsground, about the wind that comes whipping in and the rain. Then he tells them it’s a special place, somewhere he has brought his own family and found another one.
“I tell them Galway’s a nice place, bar the weather! When Galway turns on the sunshine, it’s the best place in the world to be.”
He has given his wife the same advice. “You’ve got to get out when the sun’s out because when it’s gone, it’s gone. You won’t be seeing that again.”
It might be a motto for the choices he has made in his career, but Andrew Talaimanu also keeps an eye on him from the other side of the world, and remembers the kid he saw in Manurewa High School and all he has achieved.
“I called him a bloody idiot when he was younger. He’s worked hard and made a lot of sacrifices. He’s come from a socio-economic area where some people expect you to go into cubby-holes, to be cleaners or labourers, and where they’re not going to make it as special in the world. Sport is an avenue that allows talent to realise its potential.”
Talaimanu has a message for that boy who has achieved so much, “When you speak to Bundee give him my regards and tell him my big size 11 boot is never far from his arse.”
Bundee Aki might not need that motivation. He has his own, his family - his daughters - and, again this season, the people of Connacht.
“When I think of Ireland, I actually think of Galway," he says. "It's so small, yet it’s so beautiful. You can hear how it is in the stadium. Galway’s a special place for me.”
Bundee Aki has helped make Connacht rugby feel special and he knows they need to raise their standards again this year. He will be at the centre of all they do.
“It’s quite humbling when people take me in as a Galwayman. Especially when you’re an outsider. For me to hear that, it just makes me feel like I’m home.”
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