From fallen dreams to leaps of faith, Bundee Aki has found happiness in green. This interview first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Rugby World magazine.
Bundee of Joy: an exclusive interview with Bundee Aki
IF YOU are a big name in Galway, it is tough for you to be aloof. With such a close-knit community, you had better be prepared to get to know the people of your adopted town. Just as Bundee Aki has done.
With three examples in quick succession, the energetic Connacht and Ireland centre illustrates how he finds himself yammering away in and around his home in the West of Ireland.
At first, he explains how he can find himself deep in conversation with the public at Fat Tony’s Barber Shop. It’s an easy-going atmosphere in there and the staff look after Connacht’s stars like him when he’s getting the works, so why not pass the time of day?
The next example is of Aki’s stint in a recent Visit Galway promotional video. As local broadcast personality Hector Ó hEochagáin tours about town, meeting people and talking about the joys of the West Coast destination, who should pop up but Aki. He jokes that it was a simple gig, given that he often tells people back in New Zealand about Galway. He explains: “It would be easy to live here for the rest of your life because of the lifestyle, the opportunity, the people.”
So what other example can Aki give us about life in Galway? “You could literally stand next to a new person, start talking and before you know it you’ve been talking for two or three hours and you know two or three (significant) things about that person. It’s a very small town and very friendly.”
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As we build into the Six Nations, those feelings of kinship and acceptance are important. From the outside, at this point in time, that’s because we have heard a lot of debate about whether the Auckland-born Aki was fit to pull on an Irish national jersey after qualifying on residency grounds in November. Before his first cap against South Africa, the rhetoric got heated, with Aki garnering more column and blog space than many imports had in the past. However, to understand how the tireless back got to that point and made his way beyond it to get to a Six Nations call-up, you have to understand where he came from.
By his own admission, the circumstances he was born into were not easy, but there was love around him. “People back at home are very family-driven,” he says. “I was born in Auckland and grew up in an area called Manurewa. It was tough. But my parents were happy for you to hang out with your mates or play touch in the streets.
“The biggest positive was there was a big emphasis on family and friends. Even if your family might not be in the best financial place, you had the time to be together. It’s a community within a community. In my area there were a lot of Pacific Islander families and not a lot of opportunities for everyone to make the most of. But there were other guys who lived near the area who had taken their opportunities, great players like Tim Nanai-Williams, Augustine Pulu, Rey Lee-Lo and Uini Atonio. They were all guys you’d played against or with at school and provincial level.”
Aki reiterates that aspects of his early life were tough, but nothing was as much of an obstacle as giving up the game to focus on earning money, aged 18. He says: “Having a baby at 18 was not easy, (nor was) not knowing what to do. I had responsibilities then. I was giving up rugby to put food on the table, so I worked as a teller in a bank.
“It was hard, I wasn’t able to be paid for doing what I love. And with a family you do what you have to, to get paid. We come from a family who don’t own much, who rely on Dad and my sister to make money. I had my own small family but you want to provide for your parents and your own family.
“When I first had my daughter, Armani, I thought I could rely on my parents to look after the little one. I knew things were rocky with my ex-partner. But if I wanted to be a part of my daughter’s life I had to care, I had to provide. I needed to work and I felt good about working.”
So what brought him back to rugby? “Funnily enough, I was sitting there in the bank, watching customers walk in and out, as you do,” he recalls. “Then Tana Umaga walked in. One of the girls comes up to me and says, ‘Tana said he wants to speak to you’.
“Sometimes good friends give you good stories, give you a good name. He had heard I used to play footy and asked if I’d like to come and try out at Counties Manukau. He said he couldn’t promise me anything but he wanted to see me put in a bit of work, the hard yards, and see how I play.”
Aki was “shell-shocked” to have Umaga in the middle of the bank. But right away he asked his boss if he could make a few concessions. She conceded to give him more time off, on the proviso that he would earn a little less. But boy did Bundee work. He’d leave the house at 5.30am, do morning training, do a shift at work, train in the early evening and get home at around 8.30-9pm.
It is no shock to the public that the centre, who can hit like a brick but float away from tacklers too, eventually got paid to do what he loved. After rising with Umaga’s Counties, Aki got a stint as a Waikato Chief. He was a firecracker off the bench in the Super Rugby final they won in 2013. The next year he signed up with Pat Lam’s Connacht revolution and we all know how that went – glory in 2016 as they claimed the Guinness Pro12 title. He was electric that season, a jackhammer with ballet shoes.
Which brings us back to the hullabaloo over Aki’s Ireland call-up. What was that like at the time? “The good thing about that time was all the good people around me giving nothing but total support,” Aki reflects. “My family were worried about what was going on, but the guys around me made me feel like I was one of them, which made it easy.
“I honestly tried to remove myself from what a lot of people were saying. The coolest thing was the support. You feel like what’s going to happen has happened and you are left to do what you’re doing, the best you can.
“The first cap – that was something very special, especially having my family over to see it. That will be something I cherish forever. It was all great – from the Shelbourne Hotel to the stadium, the whole thing was class. You don’t expect how much detail goes into it all, the passion you see from everyone.
“I had a Christmas break after the Ulster match and we were sitting round the table. That’s when I said to my family, ‘Jeez, what a journey we’ve had’. It was a tough old journey. I’d always wanted to play at the highest level. After all the setbacks… I said to myself, ‘It’s come with hard work, with blood, sweat and tears’.”
What he may not cherish is the memory of his initiation song. Aki jokes that his brother is the singer in the family while he “should stick to footy!” Either way, there’s no doubt his Test team-mates of a certain vintage will have appreciated him rolling back the years with his take on Shaggy’s Angel.
Yet he certainly does feel privileged to have his wife Kayla and daughters Armani and Adrianna in his life. And he maintains his faith. He says that, although you may not have always seen it from him, he is a strong believer. His parents, both Samoan, would take the troupe to church and teach the kids about right and wrong. In perhaps another telling aside, Aki proclaims that people can easily turn on someone but his faith has taught him to keep a layer of cool. He does not attend church like clockwork, but he goes as often as he can and says: “Wherever I end up, I’ll always end up going back to Jesus.”
The journey to international rugby has been up and down for Aki, with lots of other directions thrown in. It has not been easy, especially when asked to justify his place in a team he has qualified for in the space of a few years. But you just have to keep cracking on.
Great, then, that the Six Nations offers up such intense competition. He has several other bumpy rides ahead of him over the next couple of months in the famous championship and he wants to find out how good he is against these sides, to see where he can improve.
Wherever the venue and whoever he is wearing green for, though, there is something else powering Aki at the moment. “During my time in New Zealand when I first started playing again, I never thought I’d be overseas. I was so satisfied, playing with friends, relishing the moment. It was so cool.
“To do something you love and celebrate the hard work, to enjoy it is the best thing. Seeing your kids watch you play, I cherish that. I want my kids to know they have good things in front of them.”
This interview first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Rugby World magazine.