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'It's wrong for me to say that I'm Irish' - Connacht's Bundee Aki

The 26-year-old will be eligible for Ireland in 2017, as long as he stays beyond next summer.

WHEN BUNDEE AKI first signed for Connacht in 2014, many of his friends and rugby colleagues in New Zealand hadn’t heard of the Irish province.

‘Sorry, where are you going, Bundee?’ came the questioning when the explosive midfielder announced he was leaving the Chiefs and heading for the Northern Hemisphere.

Bundee Aki Aki in the new Connacht home jersey, available at Elverys Intersport. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But when the 26-year-old flew home this summer following Connacht’s remarkable Pro12-winning season, he was pleased to find that the awareness levels had been transformed.

“Most of them didn’t even know Connacht existed [before],” says Aki with a laugh.

“They all told me they had heard of Leinster, Ulster and Munster obviously, but they had never heard of Connacht until we won. So it was pretty cool to put Connacht on the map and make people aware that for a small province, we can do well.

I think they were quite surprised that after the two years I went missing, they actually didn’t know what team I was playing for! When we won, then they finally realised.”

Aki enjoyed every minute of his six weeks of “family time” at home in the off-season, a stint that allowed the knee issue he suffered in the second part of the 2015/16 campaign to heal without any requirement for surgery.

Aside from the congratulations of his newly-Connacht-supporting friends and family, Aki says that “virtually for the whole six weeks, I didn’t think about rugby at all.”

Having amassed well over 2000 minutes of playing time for Pat Lam’s side across 28 starts last season, the break was well deserved. Aki returned to Galway in July refreshed and motivated for the challenges that lie ahead.

Connacht’s goals this season are to retain their Pro12 title and advance into the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, where they will face Wasps, Toulouse and Zebre in the pool stages.

“It is a new year, it is a new team. We’ve got our own ambitions,” says Aki of the mood around Connacht in pre-season. “What we did last year was last year; this is a new year and you can’t take anything from what you did last year.”

Ben Botica and Bundee Aki Aki carries the ball in the pre-season clash with Montpellier. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On a personal level, there is a career-defining decision ahead of Aki at some point this season.

The centre’s Connacht contract expires next summer, but already there has been much chatter about Aki penning a new deal and qualifying to play international rugby for Ireland. If the former Counties Manukau man agrees to stay, he will be eligible for Ireland in October of 2017.

However, it is certain that clubs from all over the rugby world will be vying for his signature. The wealthy French and English sides will surely be attractive, while it would not be surprising for New Zealand Rugby to attempt to lure Aki back.

New Zealand native Aki also qualifies to play international rugby for Samoa, leaving him with a trio of options in that regard.

“Yeah, my ambition is still to play international rugby,” confirms Aki when asked if he hopes to advance into the Test arena.

When the time comes, when the time is right for me and when I’m ready for it, when the international coaches think I’m ready to play international, then I’ll put my hand up into it.”

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“I actually do not know just yet,” replies Aki. “I would love to tell you, but I don’t know just yet.”

It’s an odd position for a player to be in – unsure which nation they would like to represent. For many of us, it seems like an obvious answer. That is, playing for the nation of one’s birth is the ultimate goal.

The three-year residency rule has changed the landscape in Test rugby, however. There is a cynical edge to the current status quo but then few could argue that CJ Stander, to cite a recent example, has not embraced Ireland and Irishness.

Bundee Aki with fans Aki snaps a selfie with the Connacht fans after last season's Pro12 win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

What about Aki? Does he feel Irish at this point or is it still a process he has to go through?

“I’ve taken in a lot of what Irish people do and stuff like that, and I’ve enjoyed Irish culture,” says Aki.

“It’s wrong for me to say that I’m Irish. I could say I’ve enjoyed the culture, I like the environment I’m in in Ireland, but for me to say I’m Irish – that’s wrong for me to say, because I wasn’t born here.

It’s wrong for me to take away from the guys who were born here and want to play for Ireland. I’m just here, and my ambition is to play international [rugby]. I like taking in the culture as an Irish person but it’s wrong for me to say I’m Irish.”

However, Aki says he buys into Test rugby’s three-year residency rule, as long as the players are “willing to do the hard work and abide by the rules.”

The Connacht midfielder claims the last time he spoke to Joe Schmidt was “last year,” when the Ireland coach “told me how happy he is with my rugby.”

The decision remains to be made. Connacht and the IRFU will do all they can to keep Aki on these shores, where an international jersey is as close to a certainty as could possibly be the case.

The French and English clubs will send their financial might lurching into action, while New Zealand may beckon for Aki too.

“I actually don’t think about it,” says Aki of the big decision ahead of him. “That’s what my agent does for me. I’m just here to play footy and look after myself and my family.”

Bundee Aki launched the 2016/17 Connacht Rugby home jersey in conjunction with new title sponsor and official retail partner Elverys Intersport. For exclusive content and to see how Elverys Intersport welcome home Connacht Rugby, visit www.elverys.ie or follow @Elverys on Twitter and Facebook at facebook.com/ElverysSports.

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Murray Kinsella

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