Just ten days after landing in Galway, New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki was in squad training today preparing for a likely debut appearance for Connacht when Pat Lam’s men take on the Ospreys on Friday night.
Bundee Aki, who chalked up an impressive 25 Super Rugby appearances in his two years with the Chiefs, went on to play with provincial side Counties Manukau in this year’s ITM Cup campaign prior to relocating to Ireland last week.
While he has played a lot of rugby since his return from injury in April, the 24-year-old back says he is feeling fit and ready for a new challenge.
“I’m feeling great. I’ve been looking after myself pretty well. I played my last game for Counties on October 12 and even when I got over here the body was still feeling really good.. I had about two weeks off in New Zealand so it was about getting the lungs going again when I arrived,” he said.
Bundee admitted the ‘cold weather’, while expected, was still a bit of a shock when he stepped off the plane at Shannon Airport last week but said the much-talked about Irish hospitality has also lived up to his expectations.
“I’d heard a lot of good things about the people in the west of Ireland and so far it’s been brilliant. Everyone has been really welcoming. Galway feels like a small community and a really friendly environment.
“The Connacht set-up is great. The guys here have been awesome, really helping me out and making me feel at home. Pat (Lam) has got a great plan in place for us all to get to know each other so it’s been very easy for me coming in here.
“It reminds me of where I’ve come from where there is a huge emphasis on team culture. Things like greeting team-mates and coaches every morning with our own handshake is great.
“It makes sense, if you’re really good mates off the field, you know you can do good things on the field together as well.”
Looking back on his decision to move his life to Galway, Aki said there were a number of factors, explaining: “Family played a big part in my decision for sure but also the chance to play in a different environment and challenge myself. I was hearing about the good stuff that was happening at Connacht, and when the opportunity came up, I wanted to be a part of it.
“What I knew about Connacht is that they were a team not dissimilar to my old team Counties (Manakau) in New Zealand. Both are on the up and I can see a lot of similarities already.”
While Aki has never worked under Lam, the New Zealand-born back with Samoan roots said he had heard a lot about his new head coach from his former Chiefs team-mates Mils Muliaina and Craig Clarke.
“Yeah, I’d spoken with Mils who has worked under Pat and he gave me an idea of what to expect. And Craig (Clarke) as well who was an awesome leader at the Chiefs and someone I have a lot of respect for.
“He had great things to say about playing here. He explained what the boys are like, how they are so enthusiastic and passionate about their team. I liked that. You can’t coach that sort of passion so it was definitely something that excited me.”
Aki joins an exceptionally young back-line at Connacht and with the trio of Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Darragh Leader all training with Ireland this week, the 24-year-old says that their youth should be viewed as an advantage.
“I came from playing with a really young back-line at Counties as well and it’s brilliant. The young guys will always be so hungry and we’ll all challenge and learn from each other. Then having Mils as a guy who’s been there and done everything in terms of a rugby career, you can only learn from that experience.”
Aki, who can play at inside and outside centre, is likely to be involved in this weekend’s league game in Swansea and revealed he is looking forward to the introduction.
“It’s exciting – what better game to come into! I was never under the impression that I’d walk into the team but there are obviously a few guys away with Ireland and guys who have played a lot this season,” he said ahead of the round 7 date with the table-topping Ospreys.
“I’ve only been here for a few days but I can’t use that as an excuse. I’ve given myself every chance to play and I’m feeling good and fit.
“But if I’m going to play, I want to put my best foot forward. When I pull on that jersey and get out there with the boys, I will be playing to the best of my ability.
“So this week in training was just about getting my basics up to scratch. Obviously with a new team, there are new systems and structures to get used to and I’ve been working on that with the boys helping me out on the training field.
“The team have already proven that when everyone is on the same page, those systems work really well and the results come. So hopefully I can contribute to that on Friday.”