Connacht centre Bundee Aki welcomed his return to provincial rugby as he seeks to ground himself after Grand Slam glory with Ireland.
Aki hasn’t played since the end of January with Connacht and in the meantime he started every Six Nations game and was the only constant in a 12-13 channel that continually changed due to injury. But after all the glitz and glamour of Six Nations rugby he has welcomed a return to the west, just in time for their Challenge Cup quarter-final with Gloucester.
“It’s always good to be back around Connacht. It’s good to run around that dirty pitch that’s behind us, the puddle pitch that’s there,” said Aki.
“I’m not used to it from the last eight weeks, but it’s good, it brings you back down to the ground. I think I’ve only been back at training the last couple of days. There’s been a lot of hard work done after a few celebrations there. I had to make sure I had emptied some cobwebs out and get my feet back running.”
In his absence Connacht’s season has fallen asunder in the PRO14, with defeats to Zebre, Cheetahs and Edinburgh all but ending their hopes of automatic qualification for the play-offs and next season’s Champions Cup.
Winning the Challenge Cup is the only realistic route left if Connacht want to play Champions Cup, but Aki knows it’s up to him to fit in to the Connacht team after his Carton House experience.
“I’m just coming in from the Irish squad. I think the lads here have been playing together for the last eight weeks. I’ve been away for the last eight weeks and it’s not about them fitting into what I have been doing: it’s about me fitting into what they are doing in the squad.
“I have to make sure I add value as well as well making sure I’m up to speed. At the moment it feels like I’m the new player in the squad as well: there’s a lot of new plays. I’ve got to make sure I do my homework and make sure I fit into the team this week.” Since the turn of the year Aki has played seven games and has partnered six different centres in that time, and he has been praised for the ease with which he performed for Ireland with so many different players alongside him over the five matches.
Stepping up to international level appears to have come easily to the New Zealander, but he admits the standard came as a shock to the system.
“It was a huge step. Obviously playing internationals is a big step up and the Six Nations is an intense competition. I didn’t realise how intense that competition is until you’re in the squad and in the competition itself. There is a lot riding on it every week, making sure that if you want to win a grand slam you have to win every week.
“I think winning any silverware it’s great. I think it’s a great achievement of how hard you’ve worked and where you’ve come from.
“But when you’re back into another group really quickly from the final week you have got to make sure you park that behind you and focus on how you can be better, and how you can help out the squad.”
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