From one Guinness PRO12 award winner to another, Connacht veteran John Muldoon has warned the rest of the league that there is much more to come from player of the season Bundee Aki.
Aki, crowned Connacht Player’s Player and Fans’ Player of the Season on Saturday night, gained wider recognition for a superb campaign for the westerners 24 hours later when he was crowned Guinness Players’ Player of the Season after a poll of all of the PRO12 teams’ captains and vice captains.
For Muldoon, recipient of the PRO12 Chairman’s Award on a night that also saw Pat Lam named Coach of the Season and seven Connacht players selected for the PRO12 Team of the Season, the acclaim for New Zealand-born centre Aki came as no surprise and he told the province’s rivals to brace themselves for even better to come, whatever efforts they might go to try and nullify his impact.
“Absolutely. He pushes himself in training every day. Not alone has the team’s skills got better but Bundee’s skills have definitely got better over the last while,” Muldoon said.
“I think he’s always striving to get better and that’s the mark of the person that he is and he’s constantly pushing the young lads around him to get better.
“He’s always trying things in training and some of our game plan has evolved by some of the stuff that Bundee and the lads are trying in training. Pat (Lam) showed us clips a few weeks ago of us at the start of the season and even though our game plan is the same, some of our play has evolved by getting more skilfull and trying different things and Bundee is at the heart of that as are a lot of other players.
“He’s definitely getting better and like everything else, defences are watching him more and the fact he’s still able to make line breaks and play well shows that he’s getting better all the time.
“We all know the amount of analysis that’s done now. Teams will try and stop him doing what he does but the fact he’s still playing well every week shows that he’s evolving his game as well.”
Aki told guests at the Guinness Storehouse on Sunday that his award was for his team but Muldoon, recognised for his leadership and 13 years in the Connacht back row, said the Kiwi was deserving of the honour. “He’s been absolutely phenomenal. He was very humble on the stage, praising everyone bar himself but, look, he’s been very, very good. He came with a big reputation and you could understand why Leinster and Munster were disappointed not to sign him. He’s been exceptional.
“The leadership he shows on the pitch and the fact that all the lads, all the crowd, everyone gets behind him and he seems to feed off that. The more the crowd get going, the more Bundee enjoys it and at the moment, the way the Sportsground is, they’re in love with Bundee and he’s feeding off that.
“He’s been absolutely superb, every game this year he’s played exceptionally well and it’s great to see. His confidence is high and the way he goes about it during the week, he trains just as hard as he plays and I think that’s a big learning curve for some of the younger fellas.
“The tendency, I think, when you’re younger is you have massive peaks and as a group over the years we’ve been able to have big performances but not been able to back it up.
“Bundee can produce a big performance and come out and train well all week and that’s been a huge learning curve for some of the younger fellas, to understand that the consistency is massive.”
With Aki, 26, now in his second season in Galway, Muldoon also praised the Kiwi for buying wholeheartedly into life in the west. “It’s a tough place, it’s not for everybody and a lot of people over the years have struggled, not just alone foreigners but local people, people from Ireland have struggled. It’s a unique place, it can be very harsh and that’s just the weather conditions.
“Over the years, we’ve had some very harsh lessons dealt to us on the rugby pitch as well and it’s not for everybody, but Bundee’s massively bought into it.
“He epitomises probably what we like to see and what we’re trying to develop in Connacht. The way he is on the pitch is the way he carries himself around during the week.
“He’s loud, he’s abrasive in training and he gets on people’s nerves at times. He’s your best friend other times and he can be downright frustrating and that’s exactly what we see on the pitch.
“He’s a unique character, absolutely.”
Aki’s rise to prominence has not gone unnoticed in his homeland, with double World Cup-winning New Zealand captain Richie McCaw saying the Connacht star should return to play for the All Blacks.
“That just shows you the esteem he’s being held in back home and he’s building that reputation here,” Muldoon said. “That’s something different that we haven’t seen as much over the last few years.
“The fact that they’re trying to get him back is huge.”
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