Joe Schmidt’s no-holds-barred Monday video reviews have acquired legendary status in Irish rugby circles but Bundee Aki was long accustomed to such unvarnished truths long before he qualified to play rugby for his adopted country.
The ritual back in his family home rarely changes when he plays. They wake up at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night, watch their man do his stuff for Connacht or Ireland, go back to bed for a few hours and then rise again for church.
It isn’t until the Monday that he will get a call from Auckland from his father Hercules and his mother Sautia. Aki knows what to expect. “Here’s another earful,” he’ll think as the conversation starts. It seems they rarely disappoint on that score.
“Aw, they’re just making sure that I’m doing everything right and obviously the game last week (against Italy), my handling skills weren’t great,” he said. “So, he gave me an earful on that and he was making sure I’ll do it right next time.”
Family has always been central to Aki’s story.
He lives in Galway now with his wife Kayla and daughters Adrianna and Armani, but it was a larger gathering of relatives that caught the eye after his Ireland debut, against South Africa, last November in Dublin.
The moment was captured by Inpho photographer Morgan Treacy after the final whistle; Aki taking a selfie with himself, Adrianna, and a bunch of his brothers and cousins who had come to Ireland for a month but ended up staying for about 10 weeks.
Kayla has preserved the moment, framing the shot and mounting it in the family home. It is a scene that captures perfectly the distance the man from the suburb of Manurewa has travelled, both metaphorically and geographically.
His journey with this Irish team is only just starting, of course, but injuries to others may nonetheless impose the role of seniority on him in Ireland’s midfield against Wales this weekend despite the fact it will be just his fifth cap.
Garry Ringrose has just three training days under his belt since injuring his ankle in early January and Robbie Henshaw busted his shoulder scoring against Italy which has limited his interactions with Aki to bouts of Fifa on the PlayStation last weekend.
That leaves Chris Farrell as his most likely partner. Three years younger than the Connacht man, Farrell has even fewer caps at Test level. Two fewer, to be exact, but Aki doesn’t go along with the notion that he will have to pull ranks if they buddy up.
“There is ownership on every individual to do everything right,” said the 27-year old who has won a Super Rugby title with the Chiefs and a PRO12 with Connacht. “I’m just as new as Chris is and we have to make sure that we put our head down and work for each other.
“The likes of Johnny (Sexton) and Robbie and Earlsy have been working hard for each other for a very long time. We just have to make sure that we work as hard as they have. If he gets the nod he is a class player. He does everything right and he is a strong, big boy.”
Aki concedes a few inches to Farrell but little else.
Renowned for the ferocity of his hits and for a liking for offloads, his first international try, against Italy, was arguably overshadowed by his jinking feet and a textbook left-to-right pass for the Keith Earls try.
Not just a bosh merchant, then?
“As a rugby player you are always learning. When I first started playing rugby that’s nearly all I knew how to do: just bloody carry the ball. As you grow older and into the game you start learning things. There is a bit more to just bashing it up a few times.
“You have to distribute as well. You can see how England are playing with two 10s and they are playing very well at the moment. Sometimes you need to do the nitty gritty as well. Roll up the sleeves and do the dirty work as well and go straight ahead.”
All told, he has adapted well to the Test arena. The biggest challenge, he believes, has been in assimilating the
sheer volume of detail required and in ensuring
that he stays mentally tuned in to the job at hand for every second of the 80 minutes.
Jack Conan, for one, has expressed similar sentiments in recent months.
“It all comes back to how you are doing your homework and how you are prepping yourself,” said Aki. “You have different kinds of players and you have to make sure that you are seeing the same picture that everyone else is seeing.
“It’s all about the preparations you do before the game. You can’t just turn up in the game and expect to do it off the cuff.”
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