Connacht coach Andy Friend has hailed the selection of Bundee Aki in Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions squad and predicted the Ireland centre will make a big impact in South Africa.
It’s 38 years since Connacht last had a representative in the Lions squad, and after Ciaran Fitzgerald, John O’Driscoll and Ray McLoughlin, Aki will be just the fourth ever representative from Connacht.
Aki was unaware of his selection before the squad was announced live on TV this afternoon, and he watched the footage with his jubilant Connacht teammates, who had assembled together in the home dressing room at the Sportsground.
Aki, 31, had been an outsider for selection due to his recent four-game suspension, which has seen him sidelined since the his sending off against England in the Six Nations, but Friend thinks his powerful centre will be up to speed in time to take on the Springboks.
“Fantastic news, we were all sitting in the changing room watching it on the telly. I think there was a hope that Bundee might get there, but probably a distant hope to be honest. But when but happened there, just enormous cheer and jubilation around the place,” said Friend.
“I think it’s due recognition for a man who has made a lot of sacrifices, both he and his family. He is a hell of a footballer for Connacht, as he is for Ireland and now he is for the British & Irish Lions, so that’s a huge compliment for him.”
Getting the nod ahead of his Ireland colleague Garry Ringrose, Wales’ Jonathan Davies and England’s Manu Tuilagi, Aki’s defensive prowess and ball-carrying abilities appear to have caught the eye of former Connacht coach Gatland.
Aki was brought to Connacht by former head coach Pat Lam in 2014 and was a key cog of the Connacht side that went on to claim the 2016 Pro12 title. Alongside him in the centre that season was Leinster centre Robbie Henshaw, who has also been selected on Gatland’s 37-man touring party.
“I think it is a proud day (for Connacht), it definitely is. You have Bundee who’s here with us now and Robbie who has been here previously, so to have two Connacht men on that tour is great recognition for all the hard work of all the people who have put in years and hours and weeks and months of time and effort to build the organisation up to be a genuine competitor at every level.
“And that’s where we are now. We now have our fourth British & Irish Lion to add to the list of the three others, and a bloke in Robbie Henshaw who has been a very significant part of the club too.
“What you get when you come here to Connacht is you get an opportunity to play and an opportunity to show yourself and to show your wares and to sharpen your skills and skillset out there on the rugby field. If you’re good enough as we are seeing there today, people are going to notice and pick you.”
Aki was sent off against England on the occasion of his 31st international cap, but he will fancy adding to that tally in South Africa in the coming months. Friend thinks he will have a big impact on and off the field.
“It is two fold, both on and off the field. On the field you know what you’re going to get, you’re going to get a bloke who with the ball in hand he’s going to go forward for you. Without the ball in hand he is going to work really hard to get that ball back for you.
“Off the field you’ve got a bloke who has an amazing capacity to lighten up a room, and to bring a positive mood and energy to a group. He’s one of rugby’s characters, and on an eight-week tour like the British & Irish Lions are about to go on you’re going to need someone like that, so he’ll be fantastic for them.”