Bundee Aki targets Irish jersey as he quits NZ

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 06:47 14/04/2014
Bundee Aki
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HEADING OFFSHORE: Wearing a green jersey, rather than black or blue, is Bundee Aki's future ambition.

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Wearing a green jersey, rather than black or blue, is Bundee Aki's future ambition.

Three years from now, the power-packed Chiefs second five-eighth hopes to represent Ireland. Not the All Blacks or Samoa. Ireland.

This is a trend that will continue, too. Celtic clubs are fast identifying what they term New Zealand's project players – athletes they can secure early and groom into international stars. That way, they can compete on a different recruitment level with the riches in France.

In his debut season with the Chiefs last year, Aki started 12 games. He was on the All Blacks' radar but will soon be lost to New Zealand rugby at the age of 24.

Hurricanes and Taranaki fullback Andre Taylor, 26, falls into the same category – a player leaving for Japan at arguably the peak of his career.

Aki and Taylor represent key losses, highlighting the erosion of valuable second-tier depth.

Their respective defections cut deeper than those who move on towards the latter stages of their careers. These are young, home-grown players on the rise.

Aki, in particular, is considered a genuine talent, who has real potential to kick on.

After chasing another title with the Chiefs and finishing up with Counties Manukau this year, he will instead take his partner and two children and join former Blues coach Pat Lam at Irish club Connacht.

And after serving there for three years, Aki hopes to play his way into the Irish national team – coached by New Zealanders Joe Schmidt and John Plumtree – on residency grounds.

It is the same pathway former Blues and Crusaders utility Jared Payne has followed.

Sonny Bill Williams' return to the Chiefs next year played a role in Aki's decision but, ultimately, the move is about setting himself up long-term and ensuring he will be able to give his family the best possible life.

"It was a really tough decision.

"It's a long commitment. I put a lot of thought into it, looking at my options in terms of international rugby," Aki told Fairfax Media after returning from shoulder surgery and six months of rehab in the Chiefs' scrappy 22-16 win over the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday night.

"Obviously the All Blacks have got their midfielders and with Sonny coming back, it's a not a bad thing for me to go. Hopefully, if I do the hard yards over there, good things will come."

Aki has always harnessed a level-headed approach. In 2010, he took one year out to work in a bank to support his family, sacrificing rugby progression in the process.

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"Family is everything for me," he said. While he does not expect anything to be handed to him on a platter, the lure of the Irish jersey is now a clear motivator.

"That's a big part of my decision to move," he said. "Hopefully when the time is right and if I'm playing good footy, hopefully I can play for the Ireland international team.

"I've got to play well before that though. I'm eligible for Samoa.

"That was another big decision for myself – to see if I would play for them or not. If I play three years over there and it doesn't go well, I can always go back to Samoa.

"They are a good international team as well but I'm just trying to look after my family and myself."

This is clearly not a rash decision.

Financial security and the prospect of regular tier-one international footy were defining factors.

After talking with former Chiefs captain Craig Clarke, who is joined by fellow Kiwi forwards Nathan White and Rodney Ah You at Connacht, Aki's mind was made up.

"It will be different for us as a family but we'll enjoy it when we get there."

- Fairfax Media

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