It’s almost a year now since Bundee Aki wore the Ireland jersey for the first time, yet the furore surrounding his international debut seems like a lifetime ago.
In the 12 months since that game against South Africa in Dublin, the Connacht centre has become a mainstay in the Ireland squad and is seen as a key part of Joe Schmidt’s plans.
Aki kept his cards close to his chest as soon as he arrived in the country from New Zealand four years ago, but playing international rugby for Ireland was always in the back of his mind.
He might not have been as vocal about it as some of the other foreign players with the same intention, but deep down Aki knew what he wanted.
The 28-year-old has become a cult hero in the West of Ireland and there is an undoubted sense that there is much more to come from him on the international stage. World Rugby’s eligibility rules will still frustrate many people but the fact is Aki played by them and Ireland are now reaping the rewards.
“I knew what I wanted to do, it’s just sometimes, you have to make sure that within yourself, you know what you are doing and what goals you have set,” Aki says, reflecting on his decision to play for Ireland.
“It’s about keeping that close to yourself and when the time arrived, like it did, I was thankful for the opportunity. I’m in a good head space at the moment.”
On the pitch, it takes a load to ruffle Aki’s feathers, yet one wonders what kind of impact the over-the-top criticism had on him mentally?
“Aw look, people have their own opinions,” he maintains. “You can’t hide from it. You can’t do anything about it. You just have to focus on what you need to focus on.
“I just wanted to do the best I could to put in a performance for the boys around me because they are the guys who I will be playing with. The boys around me made me feel welcome. I am one of them. I have thick skin.
“It’s all about the guys around you and making sure that you are impressing the coaches as well.”
Thankfully, that is now all a distant memory and this weekend’s clash against Italy in Chicago provides Aki with another opportunity to prove to Schmidt that he can be one of his main men. Competition in Ireland’s midfield has been tough for a while now and the addition of Will Addison to the mix merely heightens that.
Aki however, brings something different to the party. His role in CJ Stander’s try at Twickenham last year was outstanding and it is little subtleties like that, which Schmidt wants Aki to produce more of. World Rugby yesterday announced that Stander’s stunning try is on the shortlist for ‘try of the year’ and it was one that Aki in particular takes huge pride in.
“I’ve always known that I could play-make a little bit more but it’s about making sure that you do it at the right time and the right places,” the powerhouse midfielder explains. “That try that CJ scored was a team try really. I don’t know who came up with that move but it didn’t work all week. I got smashed a few times but the boys stuck to their guns and obviously it paid off.
“As you can see, the ball was meant to go to Ringer (Garry Ringrose) on the outside. He was my support line but then you can see that we have guys who are working really hard off the ball. You just have to make sure that if we call something, everyone has to buy into it. That’s exactly what we did.
“I just happened to hear CJ, who was very loud on my inside. You’re just trying to make a quick decision on the spot and it felt like CJ was the one.”
Aki’s personality is hugely infectious around the squad and that is becoming even more so these days, having been in and around the set-up for a year.
“To be honest I don’t think he’s changed that much,” Ireland forwards coach Simon Easterby said of Aki’s influence. “He was selected on some really good form and he’s a good people person. People warm to him and he’s a good guy to have around.
“That’s really important but first and foremost he’s a bloody good rugby player and he’s a bit of a character and that’s what you want.
“You can’t have everyone the same and he’s the type of person that players want to play with and that’s a compliment that most players would like to have. That they’re a player people say, ‘Jeez, I want to play with him’ and I think Bundee is one of those.”
For Aki, this week is all about building stronger relationships with those around him. While Schmidt could have opted to leave his fellow Kiwi at home with the other front-liners, the Ireland head coach wants Aki to get more game-time at this level.
“You are coming in with an edge, there is so much competition around in the position that we are in,” Aki adds.
“There are still a few nerves. Coming from the club, you have a lot of different calls so you need to make sure that you are switched on when you come back into this environment.
“I have had some very good ups and then I have had games where I haven’t performed to where I need to perform.
“But definitely as a whole, it has been very good. I have enjoyed every moment I have been in here.
“The lads have set a standard so whenever you put on that green jersey, you know you have to be at your top performance.”
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