There was a comedic pause before Bundee Aki answered the question of whether he had had much captaincy experience before leading Ireland into the first match of their summer tour to New Zealand.
“Ahhh,” the centre pondered, before delivering an emphatic “no”.
To some the choice of Aki to lead the charge on this most challenging of tours, in the closest thing to a Test match that a non-Test could be given the opposition was the Maori All Blacks, may have seemed a little off beam. Yet to the people around him here in New Zealand, the captaincy fits the Connacht star from humble South Auckland origins like a glove.
“Oh, it’s a no-brainer for us,” Andy Farrell said yesterday. “He’s unbelievably well respected within the group. He always downplays himself, you know, and he’s super-excited. He’s super-proud and he spoke unbelievably well during the week as far as giving the lads a heads up as far as what’s around the corner and what he feels what it’s like to be Irish.
“He’s truly immersed into the Irish culture, the Irish way of living, the way we want to play. It’s a no-brainer for us.”
This morning’s starting hooker Dave Heffernan has known his captain since they began life as Connacht players in 2014, the Mayo youngster as an academy graduate, Aki as the imported project player with a Super Rugby winner’s medal on CV from his time with the Chiefs, playing in the same Hamilton stadium in which he will lead out this Ireland XV.
Eight years on and the hooker explained how the midweek skipper struck a chord with the rest of the squad in relaying what being Irish meant to him, an echo of last Friday night’s visit to the team hotel from former Maori All Blacks captain and Munster hero Rua Tipoki.
“Bundee has been unbelievable. He’s very loud at times but he’s quite softly spoken when he’s speaking to the group as well, and he did speak about how much it would mean to (the Maori),” Heffernan said.
“But he also spoke about how he now understands what it’s like to be an Irishman and being accepted into the wider group here so much, and the emotion that we’ll need to bring and he knows we will bring as well.
“It was kind of similar to what Rua spoke about in terms of what it means to be an Irishman and he said he really felt what it’s like to be an Irishman over the last few years.”
Aki himself revealed a little of that emotion yesterday as he spoke about being handed the captaincy.
“It's a huge privilege,” he said, “it's an honour. Very proud moment for myself and my family.
“I'm a kid from South Auckland, not many opportunities come your way. I'm privileged to be here to be a part of this team and lead the boys out… That's where I played my Super Rugby. It's going to be special for myself and my family.”
Aki admitted he had been taken aback when the head coach asked him to captain the side.
“I stood there for a bit. I honestly thought he was joking! But like I said, it is a huge honour and it is a privilege to be asked by Faz and to be able to lead the lads.”
Farrell confirmed the account.
“He stood there for a moment and I didn’t know whether he was going to cry, laugh, or turn me down or not but he was pretty emotional. It means a hell of a lot to him and he just needs to be himself because he’s got good people around him.
Of Aki’s emergence as a leader, Farrell added: “He’s just been himself, he’s just come out of himself. He is a shy type of guy that goes mad out there on the field and he’s certainly socially very popular amongst the group.
“Just over the years with his experience he’s learned how to embrace international rugby. He knows how to prepare for it and he trusts himself to be able to prepare and be himself in that type of environment and that type of experience is vital for the group that he’s captaining on Wednesday night.”
Heffernan has witnessed similar growth from Aki within the Connacht environment, “especially in the last couple of years”.
“Even when he comes back from (Irish) camp into Connacht he’s bringing everyone up, trying to bring up the standards. He’s very knowledgeable about the game, he knows it inside out and he’s great to play outside as a forward because of the little conversations he’ll have with you out on the pitch just about your timing, holding your feet, that kind of thing.
“So it’s great to have a player like that up in Connacht and over here that you can tap into their knowledge.”