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'I've had the best time of my life being part of this group, it's special'

Bundee Aki has earned his chance to become a Test Lion this weekend.

Aki is set for his Lions Test debut.
Aki is set for his Lions Test debut.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

SUCH WAS THE relentless volume that Bundee Aki offered from the sidelines for the Lions in the opening two Tests, he was told to shut up at one stage.

The Connacht and Ireland centre doesn’t say who told him to keep it down but shrugs that it was “fair.”

Having watched on from outside the matchday 23 over the last two weekends, Aki will get a chance to bring his energy, power, skillset, and volume on the pitch in the deciding third Test this Saturday. Lions head coach Warren Gatland has brought him into the team at inside centre, with his good friend Robbie Henshaw moving to the 13 shirt.

By now, Aki’s parents will have woken to the good news of their son being named for his Lions Test debut. His father has been working in Australia recently, while his mother has been back home in New Zealand.

Speaking earlier today, Aki hadn’t yet had a chance to call them but it will undoubtedly have been an emotional chat when they awoke.

“They’re still asleep,” said Aki just after Gatland had named his team.

“I’ve spoken to my wife, she’s happy and buzzing to see me get out there and play. I’m looking forward to it, keeping my feet on the ground and doing the job that I need to do.”

bundee-aki Aki starts at inside centre this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Nonetheless, Aki is in no doubt about how big an achievement this is.

“It’s a huge deal and a huge honour to be able to represent this prestigious team,” he said.

“A lot of people pray to try and get to where we are and I’m blessed to be where I am at the moment. I’m grateful for the opportunity I’m getting this week. Not many people can say they’ve got a [Lions] Test cap, so I’m honestly not taking this lightly at all.

“I’m going to relish the time I have on the pitch and try and take it with both hands.”

There’s no doubt Gatland and his coaching staff have been impressed at how switched on and connected Aki has stayed despite missing out on first and second Test selection. By all accounts, he has been outstanding in training, preparing the starting Test teams for their clashes with the Springboks.

Now, others will help Aki to be in prime condition to battle the Boks. The 31-year-old says it hasn’t been difficult to stay focused in recent weeks given the strong sense of togetherness in the Lions group.

“I’ve actually had the best time of my life being part of this group, this group is special,” said Aki.

“You’d only know how well we get along as a group and as a team when you’re around us.”

The Connacht man has been blown away by how different some players have been in person compared to what they’re like to play against.

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bundee-aki-and-robbie-henshaw Aki and Henshaw start in midfield this weekend. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Aki has struck up a strong relationship with England’s Owen Farrell, who he says has been a great influence on him.

“I think a lot of my videos on Instagram are me beating him at Fifa and he doesn’t like it!” said Aki.

“But honestly, I’ve learnt so much off that guy. I didn’t think I’d get along with him so well. Obviously, you only know him from across the pitch, you only know him when you’re playing against him.

“But the standards he’s been doing when I’m not selected, and the way he’s been approaching me as a person and as a player, he’s literally hanging around with us every single day. Which is cool, because you don’t see that side of him. He’s a great bloke to have around.”

But it’s Henshaw who Aki will pair up with in midfield this weekend, rekindling a centre combination that dates all the way back to 2014 at Connacht and takes in Aki’s Ireland debut against South Africa in 2017.

“He has grown massively, matured massively as a player,” said Aki of Henshaw’s development.

“He’s starting to see things he didn’t really see when he was a young kid. When I came in, he was young, Pat [Lam] spoke highly of him, how much of a player he’s going to be in the future, and you can see it now.

“He’s playing unbelievable rugby, he’s doing what he does best – playing footie and he’s enjoying it. So I have been quite lucky to play alongside him so many times and he’s just a great bloke.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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