Bundee Aki says his family are the driving force behind his barnstorming performances for Ireland at Rugby World Cup 2023 so far.
The first three rounds have seen Aki score four tries, claim two Mastercard player-of-the-match awards, win his 50th cap for Ireland, and play all 240 minutes while making a tournament-high 53 carries for 487 metres, beating 22 defenders and making eight line breaks.
The 33-year-old, who is mindful of the tough test that lies ahead this weekend, has played down his impact for Andy Farrell’s men, instead wishing to give the plaudits to his team-mates and the collective effort.
He does not have to look too far for inspiration when he steps out on the field. Ever since his first cap at the Aviva Stadium back in 2017, his wife Kayla and young family have been by his side, memorably sharing in the post-match celebrations and laps of the pitch.
Kayla and their children Adrianna, Andronicus and Ailbhe have been close at hand and supporting from the stands these last few weeks. The players have been feeling the benefits of Farrell’s ‘family first’ approach both before and during the Rugby World Cup.
The couple’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Armani-Jade, is back in New Zealand as she focuses on her studies but Bundee is comforted by the fact she is following his World Cup exploits on television.
“Family is everything for me. I play for them. I love to make sure that whenever I do step on that field, that everything I do is to represent my family and my friends. Most of all it’s my kids,” said Aki, who has scored eight tries in his last 13 Tests.
“I have a daughter in New Zealand, Armani, who unfortunately can’t be here due to school and stuff like that.
“For me as a dad, knowing that when I’m playing well or doing good for the team, that she obviously can watch and see that her dad’s trying to play well so she can see him on TV. All I think about is my kids.”
Aki says the bond between the players is growing tighter, and it obviously helps when the team are playing well and stringing results together. Saturday night sees them chasing World Cup quarter-final qualification against familiar opponents Scotland.
Asked why he is playing so well at the moment, he humbly responds: “I’d say it’s from the whole team really, not me. I’m just getting on the back end of what Paulie (O’Connell) is doing with the forwards, giving us front foot ball, and then me on top of it, so I think it is a collective.
I wouldn’t say it is just me playing well, I think there’s a whole load of us that are playing well. I’m just getting on the end of it.
“Yeah, I’m enjoying it. As a group and as a team, we are enjoying each other’s company. It’s really fun at the moment but we all know what lies ahead and the competition that’s coming.
“As a team, we’re getting tighter and tighter. The more we get tighter as a group, the best it is for us going out on the pitch knowing that we’ve got each other’s backs.”
The Connacht star has been part of a strong quartet of specialist centres at Farrell’s disposal. Aki and Garry Ringrose have been very difficult to dislodge as the starting pair. Ringrose has supplied a tournament-high five try assists to date.
Stuart McCloskey comes into the matchday 23 to face Scotland and could make his World Cup debut, but Robbie Henshaw’s campaign has been disrupted by niggles. Unfortunately a hamstring injury picked up at training on Tuesday is set to rule him out for at least ‘a couple of weeks’.
The competition for places is keeping standards high and helping to inspire big performances from the in-form Aki and Ringrose, who are set to start their 24th Test together on Saturday. As a combination, they have only been on the losing side four times.
“There’s always been competition in the midfield, which is very good, especially when everyone’s healthy,” noted Aki. “It brings out the best of everyone. That’s the healthy thing about us centres – everyone is just trying to help out each other, whether you are selected or not selected.
“You are trying to make sure everyone is prepared really well for what is coming in front of us.
“When you have healthy centres and good centres around you, you tend to put your best foot forward and make sure that you’re on top of it.”
Aki enjoyed playing with and getting to better know the Scottish players during the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. He says Ireland will have to be ‘on the money’ on Saturday night given the threats that the Scots have in their back-line.
Darcy Graham, the tournament’s joint-top try scorer with five, grabbed a Scottish World Cup record-equalling four tries and beat 14 defenders against Romania. His wing colleague, Duhan van der Merwe, beat the same amount of defenders during their win over Tonga.
“He is a good lad, Duhi. I got along with him very well. On the pitch he is a freakish athlete, he can make something out of nothing, he is quick, he’s strong. The threat he poses for Scotland is unbelievable, and not just him.
“You have got the likes of Darcy, Finn (Russell) and the rest of their back-line…they are unbelievable athletes. We have got our hands full this weekend and they are going to be a massive threat for us (to deal with).”
Aki added: “I think their midfielders are world class players. You have got the likes of Sione Tuipulotu, who is running amok around there.
“Then you have Chris Harris and Huw Jones…I could talk all about their running lines, their gas and speed, the defensive side of things.
“We know the threats they pose and they are playing unbelievably well. We just have to make sure we, as a group and as a back-line unit, know what’s coming and make sure that we are on top of our game, because they are class players.”
Russell, forwards Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray, and Jones, who will start in the centre alongside Tuipulotu, are the four survivors from the starting XV that featured in Scotland’s last win over Ireland at the start of the 2017 Six Nations.