Aki shrugs off criticism of Ireland role
The New Zealand-born centre qualified on residency grounds in 2017 and has been an Ireland mainstay ever since.
Bundee Aki has vowed to keep on doing Ireland proud, despite admitting “some people won’t be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey”.
New Zealand-born with Samoan heritage, Aki left his native Auckland to seek a better life for his family in 2014 – settling in Galway and thriving with Connacht.
Aki duly qualified for Ireland on residency, making his Test debut in 2017 and going on to provide a formidable midfield presence in head coach Joe Schmidt’s squad.
Former Ireland stars Neil Francis and Luke Fitzgerald have repeatedly hit out at the nation’s “project” players, while New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster said directly of Kiwi-born Aki in November: “They’ve turned him into an Irishman – he looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?”
The 29-year-old has received widespread plaudits for his whole-hearted commitment to the Galway community as much as Connacht’s ranks, and has now spoken out about his detractors.
Asked how he feels when he hears criticism of his decision to chase a Test career with Ireland, Aki said: “Ah look, people have their own opinions, which is fair.
“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.
“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.
“Hopefully I do myself proud, I do my team-mates proud, make sure I do my family proud and most of all, the country proud.
“That’s all I can do realistically as a rugby player.”
Aki was nearly lost to rugby forever when he quit the sport to work as an Auckland bank teller to provide for his young family.
Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga went into Aki’s branch to coax the hard-hitting centre into another crack at the professional game, and the rest is now happy history.
Foster’s comments on Aki in November only served to fire up one of the emotional heartbeats of Ireland’s ranks, and Schmidt’s men duly downed New Zealand 16-9 for their first win over the All Blacks in Dublin.
World Rugby have extended the residency qualification period from three to five years, to come into effect from January.
The governing body’s vice-chairman Agustin Pichot questioned Ireland’s decision to select South Africa-born Jean Kleyn ahead of Devin Toner for the World Cup, bringing the project player issue right back into the spotlight.
Pichot said he would be seeking “answers” from his own organisation in World Rugby were he Toner and facing that World Cup snub.
That sparked renewed debate over Ireland’s overseas-born contingent, with centre Chris Farrell hailing Aki in particular for laying down robust roots in Galway.
Admitting moving abroad has proved tough but entirely worthwhile, Aki pledged to keep on giving his all for Connacht and Ireland.
“When I first came over my ambition was to play at an international level, but obviously it’s never a given,” said Aki.
“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.
“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. I call it my home at the moment and I’m sure people will feel like I’m one of them as well.”