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'People have their own opinions' - Aki proud to represent Ireland at the World Cup
The Connacht man says he has been embraced by the Irish rugby public since moving to Galway in 2014.

BUNDEE AKI WALKS into the room at Ireland’s team hotel in Chiba, spots the group of Irish journalists and says, “Is this the Left Wing?”

It’s clear that the Ireland centre is joking but it’s also clear that he has heard the comments made about him by former international Luke Fitzgerald on his podcast.

Fitzgerald, who won 34 caps for Ireland before being forced to retire in 2016 due to injury, recently opined that Aki should not be picked in Joe Schmidt’s team ahead of Garry Ringrose.

bundee-aki Dan Sheridan / INPHO Bundee Aki is in Japan at the World Cup with Ireland. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He shouldn’t be in that team,” said Fitzgerald, who has long been critical of players qualifying via the residency rule. “The guy is literally a blow-in. It’s going to annoy me watching it. 

“Aki is getting away with it and it’s wrong and it doesn’t sit well with me. What’s going on here? We’re not picking any of the Irish guys? Ringrose has got the potential to be the next Drico.”

While any debate over Ireland’s midfield has been put to bed by a hamstring injury to Robbie Henshaw in Japan, Aki has been strongly defended by supporters and team-mates alike.

Chris Farrell, another option for Joe Schmidt in midfield, has been among those who have stood up for New Zealand native Aki’s right to play for Ireland. 

“I’ve walked down the streets of Galway with Bundee and it’s chaos, he’s such a leader down there and has done so much for the province,” said Farrell, adding that “it’s fantastic” to have Aki, CJ Stander, and Jean Kleyn – who all qualified after three years of residency – in the Ireland squad.

As for Aki, when asked whether critics’ opinions bother him, he looks to brush it off and says that he is just keen to do Ireland proud.

“Look, people have their own opinions, which is fair,” says the 29-year-old. “They’re more than able to have their own opinion. That’s how they think and how they approach it. I highly respect them for that and I’ve got nothing towards them.

“All I’ve got to do is just make sure I put in a performance and do what I can do, and that’s just to perform on the field, and that’s all I can ask for.

bundee-aki Dan Sheridan / INPHO Aki at Ireland training in Chiba. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Hopefully I do myself proud, I do my team-mates proud, make sure I do my family proud and most of all, do the country proud. That’s all I can do, realistically, as a rugby player.”

Aki, who moved to Ireland in 2014, underlines that he very much feels part of the community in Galway, Connacht and the rest of Ireland.

“Connacht have supported me from day one when I first arrived and Galway, everyone knows how friendly they are and how they are such good people,” he says.

“Look, I call it my home at the moment and I’m sure people will feel like I’m one of them as well.”

Comfortable with his place in the squad, Aki looks like being a key man for Ireland at this World Cup after two strong performances against Wales in their final two warm-up fixtures.

The Connacht man made uncharacteristic errors in defence against England in the game before that but also scored a magnificent solo try in the heavy defeat at Twickenham. Having also stood out with ball in hand against the Welsh, Aki is feeling confident in his game.

He looks far learner this season and jokes that a change in his diet has helped.

“I have shed a few kilos, but that’s just me losing a big of fat that I’ve had for a few years,” says Aki with a laugh. “I’ve been enjoying the Supermacs a bit too much!

“Pre-season has been tough, the weather, the conditioning stuff that Jayo [S&C coach Jason Cowman] has been doing with Rhys Ruddock’s brother, Ciaran [who is Ireland's S&C assistant], has been unbelievably good going into this World Cup.

bundee-aki-and-his-daughter-adrianna James Crombie / INPHO Aki with his daughter Adrianna. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I’m feeling good going into games, I’m feeling energetic and I feel like I can do things around the park. It is the biggest stage, you have to be in good nick.

“You can’t be off the ball and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do and hopefully I can keep doing that and improve.”

Aki smiles and says it’s “a secret” when asked what he’s weighing in at these days, but he’s in positive form leading into Ireland’s Pool A opener against Scotland this Sunday in Yokohama.

He moved to Ireland from New Zealand five years ago with hopes of playing on the biggest stage, and now he just wants to take his chance.

“When I first came over, my ambition was to play at an international level but obviously it’s never a given. It was such a hard decision to move over with my family but Ireland has welcomed me with open arms.

“Like I said, it was never given that I would play at international level. I had to put in the hard work, I had to put in week-by-week performances.

“Some people won’t be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey, but I obviously felt like playing for this country, putting in the hard work, anything can happen. So, yeah, I got all I could ask for.”

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