When Bundee Aki left New Zealand to bravely pursue a new life for himself and his family in Connacht and Ireland in 2014, some were quick to suggest his motives were entirely financial.
The questioning of his motives, and even his right to play for Ireland through the residency decision, seemed to follow him more than others who made similar career decisions such as, for example , Ian McKinley, who made his Italian debut on the same day as Aki did for Ireland.
Yet it is, after all, a professional sport that has more demanding demands and a shorter lifespan than other, more financially rewarding ones.
Born in the Auckland suburb of Otahuhu to Samoan parents Hercules and Sautia, and the second eldest of seven children, Aki played rugby at Manurewa High School, one of New Zealand’s largest multicultural secondary schools.
Rugby gave him opportunities in life he wouldn’t have had otherwise, first with Manakau Counties and then with the Waikato Chiefs. He will soon enter his ninth season with Connacht, having shown unquestionable loyalty to the province and doing as much as any player to inspire youngsters to get into the game west of the Shannon.
Either way, eight years after leaving New Zealand, Aki, 32, is back on familiar ground and can hold his head high more than ever.
Although he played 37 times in official Tests, it is unlikely that any of those games meant more to him than captaining Ireland in their opening match against the Maori All Blacks. , not least because he rightfully brought it back to Waikato Stadium where he had some of his finest hours with the Chiefs.
Aki has long proven his loyalty to Connacht, for whom he played 119 times in eight seasons, and Ireland. The boy from South Auckland did well.
“It’s a huge privilege, it’s an honour,” Aki said of the Ireland captain. “A moment of great pride for me and my family. I am a child from South Auckland, not many opportunities come your way. I’m privileged to be here to be part of this team and lead the boys.
The honor is, Aki admitted, all the more special as the game takes place in what is now FMG Stadium in Hamilton. During his two seasons with the Chiefs, they retained their Super Rugby title in 2013 and reached the play-offs the following year.
Among Aki’s 26 games for the Chiefs were 15 at home, of which he was on the winning side a dozen times, including semi-final and final wins over the Crusaders and Brumbies in 2013 .
Although choosing Aki as captain might seem quite awkward, Farrell saw his center as an obvious choice.
“Oh, that’s a no-brainer for us. He is incredibly respected within the group. He’s always minimizing himself and he’s super excited. He’s super proud and he’s spoken incredibly well during the week letting the guys know what’s around the corner, and also how it feels to be Irish.
“He’s really immersed in the Irish culture, the Irish way of life, the way we want to play. It is obvious to us.
Yet when Farrell first approached Aki in a hallway at the team hotel in Auckland on Monday morning, the player himself admitted he was shocked.
“I stood there for a while,” Aki recalls with a laugh, before pausing as if reliving the moment.
“I honestly thought he was joking,” he added, his beaming smile also expressing how proud the moment was. “But like I said, it’s a huge honor and a privilege to be asked by Faz and to be able to lead the guys.”
Recalling their conversation, Farrell said: “He stood there for a while and I didn’t know if he was going to cry or laugh or deny me or not, but he was quite emotional. It means a lot to him and he just need to be himself because he has good people around him.
Aki admitted he doesn’t remember ever captaining a team of any description in his career. His former Connacht manager Pat Lam named him captain of the Barbarians side to face England at Twickenham four years ago. “But I didn’t fly.”
Still, he worked under a lot of good.
“I was coached by huge world-class players. Johnny (Sexton) is obviously one of them, Pete O’Mahony, James Ryan. I could name a few. I will consult them for some help.
Andy Friend confirmed the clear evidence that Aki has become much more of a vocal leader since the player’s experience touring with the Lions last year under the harsh conditions imposed by the pandemic.
“Yeah obviously I have a lot of experience now to be able to play and try to help young people, trying to share my experiences with them and take it from there and lead through my actions.”
Farrell also taps into Aki’s inherent knowledge of New Zealand rugby and the mentality of its representative teams.
“There will be a lot of pride, a lot of guys trying to make a statement,” Aki said of the squads Ireland will face on this research tour. “It’s in their backyard that they’re all going to play, but that’s about us. It’s how close together we can be and how good we can be at meeting these challenges in front of us and just meeting them.
Like Connacht teammates Dave Heffernan and Cian Prendergast, playing against the Maori All Blacks marked their first game in seven weeks, and also suggests Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be the midfield partnership against the All Blacks in the first Test at Eden Park next Saturday.
Next Saturday’s starting XV trained separately, but while Aki had a similar experience while on tour with the Lions, he doesn’t see it as particularly relevant.
“It’s an experience in itself but like I said, I think everybody when you step onto the pitch, it’s just a game of football. You do what you do, and you do it by love the game. You do it because you love doing it, the best thing about it is you’re doing it with a bunch of guys you love being with.