Ireland centre Bundee Aki. Dave Winter/INPHO

Bundee's remarkable turnaround completed by POTY nomination

The 33-year-old had a rocky start to 2023 but was spectacularly good in the World Cup.

THIS YEAR STARTED with Bundee Aki being left out of the Connacht team for a few games in a row.

It’s easy to forget now but yes, Connacht were opting not to pick the Test-capped Lion and Ireland stalwart despite him being available for selection.

All was not well out west. Aki and head coach Andy Friend weren’t seeing eye to eye. The Connacht boss felt his centre should be fitter, the Connacht centre felt his boss should be picking him. Young midfielder Cathal Forde was selected ahead of Aki and Connacht said it was a decision made on form.

The relationship wasn’t in a happy place and there were even rumours that Aki could leave Connacht despite being contracted until 2024.

Ireland boss Andy Farrell must have been concerned as Aki came into the Six Nations lacking game rhythm. Robbie Henshaw was injured for the start of the championship but even still, Aki didn’t get the nod at inside centre. 

Instead, Ulster’s in-form Stuart McCloskey was picked there for the opening two games of the Grand Slam campaign, with Aki offering impact off the bench. 

The Connacht man did come into the starting XV for the third-round clash with Italy, with McCloskey initially due to rotate onto the bench only for Garry Ringrose to be ruled out at a late stage due to injury. That meant Aki moving to outside centre as McCloskey started at 12. It wasn’t a brilliant day for the Ireland centres.

But Aki was a key figure as Ireland closed out their Grand Slam, starting the final two games against Scotland and England at inside centre, with Ringrose and then Henshaw partnering him.

bundee-aki-with-his-family-after-the-game Aki with his family in France. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

So Aki returned to Connacht fit and in form, regained his place at number 12, and helped them into the URC semi-finals. It was a happy ending to a campaign that had threatened to bubble over at one stage.

Connacht’s season ended on 13 May and that meant Aki had three full months before his first appearance for Ireland in the World Cup warm-ups. He used that time to get into perhaps the best condition of his career. Back in 2019, Aki felt he had got too lean for the World Cup. He felt underpowered and that he lacked energy. So his approach this time was different. He didn’t target low body fat, instead playing heavier but happier.

We’ve all seen the results at this World Cup, with 33-year-old Aki looking quicker, more explosive, lighter on his feet, yet more muscular in contact than ever. His form in the number 12 shirt was spectacular and even as Ireland were knocked out by New Zealand in the quarter-finals, Aki scored a stunning try. Had Farrell’s team won, that finish by Aki would have been lauded as one of the best ever from an Irish player at the World Cup.

There were other scintillating tries against Romania and Tonga as Aki scored five in his five games, while his defensive work, passing, and everything else were in superb working order too. Even without having played a semi-final, Aki is top of the ball-carrying charts for this World Cup with 81. His 10 linebreaks leave him fourth overall. 

That brilliant form has now led to Aki being nominated for the World Rugby player of the year award. He is clearly an outsider to win the gong given that either New Zealand’s Ardiea Savea or South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth will become a World Cup champion on Saturday and surely get the nod. The other nominee, Antoine Dupont, is probably the best player in the world but France didn’t win the Six Nations or World Cup, which may count against him.

Yet Aki’s form means he deserves the nomination. It’s certainly all the more remarkable when you consider the turnaround from how 2023 started for Aki.

It’s also remarkable when you consider the turnaround in his career from his early 20s when he was famously working in a bank in Auckland to support his young family and didn’t see his future in professional rugby. But he was too good to be allowed to slip away from the game.

bundee-aki-dejected Aki dejected after the quarter-final defeat to New Zealand. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

He went from Counties Manukau to the Chiefs to Connacht and on into the green jersey. Aki won his 50th Ireland cap in the pool game against South Africa last month, an achievement he admitted seemed unlikely even after he had arrived on Irish shores.

He turned 33 in April and while some supporters seem to be keen to see older players in the Irish squad culled after the recent World Cup, it’s unlikely that Aki will want to stop playing when he’s performing at such a high level.

Nor is it likely that Farrell will simply drop players from his squad because of their age. Aki’s IRFU deal runs until the end of this season and he has shown that he’s still in prime condition and playing the best Test rugby of his career.

He might be the outsider to win World Rugby player of the year at the awards ceremony on Sunday in Paris, but his nomination has been well-earned.

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