Aki reaches the 'pinnacle' with Lions' selection

Lions' selection was never part of Bundee Aki's plans when he first moved to Galway in 2014, attracted by Pat Lam's vision for Connacht.

Fast forward seven years, and the former Counties Manukau and Waikato Chiefs' player is at the "pinnacle" of his rugby career, having been selected on Warren Gatland's Lions' tour to South Africa.

The 31-year-old says it is a special bonus for those playing in the Northern Hemisphere to be chosen to represent the Lions.

"People say it is the pinnacle of a rugby career and I think it is as well," he says. "Some countries don't have that luxury. Here in Europe, to be selected for the Lions is above the international level. It is huge and it's a big honour. I am proud to be representing Connacht, as well as my family, and Ireland."

Aki reveals he was too nervous to listen to the Lions' team announcement last month, preferring instead to head out onto the Sportsground pitch to watch the Connacht Academy boys train.

"I had to leave the changing room where the boys were watching the announcement. I was getting too nervous, and then I heard the uproar and the lads came out running.

"I was pinching myself, feeling really jittery for no reason. Obviously I called my wife [Kayla], and she had tears; went home and she shed more tears - just for what we have done as a family and the sacrifices to get where we are. Then I called my mum and dad - they couldn't have been more happy or proud of what I have achieved since I left New Zealand."

Congratulatory messages have been flooding in from Connacht fans, those in the village of Oranmore where he lives, and people he doesn't now.

"When I first arrived with my family, the overwhelming welcome I received from Connacht people was unbelievable. They have been so supportive from day one, you can see how close and tight this community is - even putting up signs. I am so grateful to be part of this small community."

Aki has already met his fellow Lions at an induction day, which he says was "like my first day of school", but "everyone was friendly, cracking a few jokes".

"You could feel the vibe that was building as a group and there was something really cool about it. I was nervous, but it was good nerves - something you like to feel when you are in new places and it was exciting.

"I am going to be with some unbelievable world-class players who I have played opposite - guys who have been there before, who know what it is like. I just have to be myself and hopefully add value to the team, do what I need to do and whatever the coaches and the team want me to do, and I will do that to the best of my ability."

He is also relishing joining up with his former Connacht and now Ireland partner Robbie Henshaw, two of Ireland's eight representatives.

"It is always good have a guy you have known for a very long time. Robbie is a world-class player, playing unbelievable rugby, and to know he has been on a Lions' tour before and knows what it is like, I will be able to feed off him and learn from him just as much I do in Ireland camp."

It is also a friendship Aki values just as much off the field.

"It's not just about rugby. We do things off the pitch, go out on Robbies' boat, or play music together, just having a coffee, normal chit-chat. You have to take time to hang out as friends rather than just as rugby players because at the end of the day, when you put on the shirt together as a group and you know someone that well, you can trust them going into the game."

This week, however, Aki is expected to line out for Connacht to get valuable game time that he missed during the nine weeks out of action due to the four-match ban after the England red card.

"Right now I am only focused on Connacht and to put up a performance together with the guys for the last time this season, to make sure I just go out there and do what I need to do."

It is a long way from South Auckland and the bank teller job he gave up to follow his rugby dream.

"Rugby takes you on different journeys and pathways," he says, "and I was lucky enough to come to Galway to play for Connacht, then lucky to represent Ireland, and now play for the Lions. It's a huge honour."

 

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