Bundee Aki says it will be ‘an honour and a privilege’ to captain the Ireland team against the Māori All Blacks in Hamilton, where he played Super Rugby for the Chiefs between 2013 and 2014.
Ireland’s summer tour starts on Wednesday (kick-off 8.05am Irish time) at FMG Stadium Waikato, with Aki leading a youthful squad that contains five uncapped players.
The 32-year-old centre missed out on captaining the Barbarians in 2018 due to injury, so to skipper this Ireland XV on New Zealand soil will undoubtedly be a special moment in his career.
“It is a huge privilege, it’s an honour. A very proud moment for myself and my family,” admitted Aki, speaking at today’s team announcement press conference at North Harbour Stadium.
“A kid from south Auckland, not many opportunities come your way. Privileged to be here, be a part of this team and to lead the boys out. It’s special to do it here, that’s where I played my Super Rugby.
“When Faz (Andy Farrell) asked me to be captain, I stood there for a bit. I obviously thought he was joking! No, like I said, it’s a huge honour and it’s a privilege to lead the boys.”
‘Leading by my actions’ is the mantra Aki is following as a first-time captain, and the Connacht star is relishing the opportunity to link up with uncapped duo James Hume and Ciaran Frawley in a new-look 10-12-13 axis.
Farrell and his fellow coaches want to see players ‘put under extreme pressure’ in these midweek matches, as there are places up for grabs in the Test series and the five-fixture schedule is akin to a Rugby World Cup pool phase and quarter-final.
I think the fellas have been training very well. James Hume has been playing very well, as well as Frawley. For me, it’s just being able to lead by my actions and let those fellas do what they do best, which is play footie.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it, playing alongside them. We’ve had a good few trainings, there’s a lot of relationship (stuff) going on. A lot of work done behind after training.
“I think we’re doing really well at the moment. We know the first Test is coming, but you’ve got to do the first job first, which is obviously Wednesday. Do the job and then focus on whatever comes next.
“Our main focus is obviously Wednesday and the Māori team, and as Faz said, it’s two top quality teams and you can’t look past that at all.”
The 2021 British & Irish Lion has faced the haka on two previous occasions with Ireland, both at the Aviva Stadium before wins over the All Blacks in 2018 and last November.
It is twelve years since the Māori All Blacks last played Ireland in an uncapped international – a 31-28 defeat for the tourists in Rotorua – and another spinetingling rendition of the Te Tīmatanga haka awaits in Hamilton tomorrow.
Current Ireland winger James Lowe was part of the Māori side that lost 27-14 to Munster at Thomond Park in November 2016. Niall Scannell, who is on the Irish bench tomorrow, scored the province’s opening try which Lowe responded to.
A Māori All Blacks squad that includes players of the calibre of co-captains Brad Weber and TJ Perenara, along with a number of talented youngsters, is sure to provide stiff opposition for Farrell’s men.
Aki is clearly itching to play after last lining out for Connacht in April. With his young family having flown out and a long-awaited visit to his parents in Auckland, he cannot wait to get the tour underway.
Asked about facing the haka at his former home ground, he said: “Obviously it’s a huge thing to face the haka, obviously there’s a lot of heritage behind that. Same thing as usual, just embrace it, accept the challenge and go from there.
There will be a lot of pride, there’ll be a lot of guys trying to make a statement. It’s their backyard that we’re going to be playing in.
“But it’s about us, as a group, how together we can be and how good we can be to take that challenge in front of us and just go after it.”