Ireland’s Bundee Aki in form of his life at Rugby World Cup



PARIS — Bundi Aki is playing so well they wrote a song about him. Kind of good. But surely any link to The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” playing over stadium PAs and being sung by an Irish horde touring France, is a good thing, right?

Replace “Zommmmbie” with “Bundeeeeee” and you’ve got the gist of it anyway.

Twisted lyrics aside, there is no doubt that Aki is one of the most influential figures at Rugby World Cup 2023. Ahead of this weekend’s quarter-finals, where Ireland will face the All Blacks in one of the most hotly anticipated matches in the history of the tournament. , leading the tournament in total carries [61]meter carried [567]And sits equal first for the defeated defenders [23]; He sits at equal second for the line break [9].

Talk about a separate stat line, huh?

And now he has the chance to sting the nation he had to leave behind to chase his Test rugby dreams. Stuck behind the likes of Ma Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams, Aki packed his bags for Irish club Connacht in 2014. Three years later, along with his residency, he made his debut for Ireland. And in six years he has become one of the most damaged ball-carriers in the world.

“Bundy is an absolute competitor,” outgoing Connacht coach Andy Friend told ESPN this week when asked what his first impression was on the hard-driving center when the Australian joined the club in 2018. An international center, a low center of gravity, stocky, strong, so he’s got that perfect build and he’s got that mentality that says he wants to win every time he steps on the field.

“That was my first impression with him, I saw him from a distance, but then when you meet Blok, you work out that’s his mindset; he’s a family man but also about winning and being everything. That’s the way he can be. The best. Very driven, very single-minded in the way he goes about things, a great determination and belief in himself and his own abilities, so those were the things that struck me first.”

However, gone are the days when International 12s could only be crash-ball cowboys.

One of the keys to Nonu’s longevity and World Cup-winning partnership with Conrad Smith was the work he introduced to his game at inside center mid-career; Sweeping cut-out passes, contracted offloads, footwork on the line and a kicking game were all added to the All Blacks’ kitbag and are now essentials in the modern day Test 12.

Friends say Aki went through a similar transition while in Ireland.

“I think that finesse has grown and I think Ireland has been really good for him,” Friend explained. “I think when he burst onto the scene in Ireland, like before when Connacht won the PRO12 in the 2015/16 season, Bundy was the player of the tournament. I wasn’t there, but I certainly saw a lot of the games, and he was devastating with the football; He could carry things, he was solid defensively and that was probably the style of play you saw him play for the Chiefs.

“That’s the basis of his game, but I think what he’s added since then is finesse around deft passing, his kicking game, he’s got a bit of footwork on the line now; he’s always had good blocking.

“But I think the biggest thing in this tournament is his timing, his timing is beautiful right now. His ability to not get ahead of himself, just wait and use his acceleration and power at the right time, on a short ball to run, that Whether it’s the inside ball or the outside ball, it’s just been exceptional. And that’s a compliment to the guy, he’s still developing his game at 33 and we’re seeing it. World stage at the moment.”

Last week saw Scotland demolish Ireland in the first half. Standing a little wider than usual, Aki took a pass 15 meters inside the left touchline, drove through the line and offloaded to midfield partner Gary Ringrose, who then ran clear to the line and fed Hugo Keenan for Ireland’s second try.

Ahead of the tournament, in the blockbuster clash with South Africa, Aki topped the career and meter-making counts and generally caused all sorts of problems for the Springboks midfield.

But not all line breaks and tackle busts over the past 12 months. In the most recent United Rugby Championship season, Aki was suspended for eight weeks for a dangerous cleanout that made headlines across the rugby world.

Ugly? Yes. Untimely? Even more so, especially when you’re up against the quality of Ireland’s midfield options.

“My reading of it was that he was very upset about it, and it had been a long time,” Friend said of Aki’s reaction to that comment. “I think the other thing that was on his mind was that he just wanted to play every game; you’ve got a World Cup coming up and you’ve got a guy called Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose, who are pretty good footballers, and another guy called Stuart McCloskey. It’s going pretty well.

“I think the frustration for Bundy was to miss the opportunity, to be there to show what I could do, so it was a tough one for him. And it certainly played on his mind, but he was able to find a way. His own self -What he has to do with awareness and his own self control.

“So we sent him to the Ireland camp to spend some time there, just to get away from Connacht, basically to train by himself, but to train in a different environment where he’s not in your face. Playing every week. He went and did that; And again, the extra work that Bundy does behind the scenes, he’s so driven and so single-minded and focused on putting out the best version of himself out there, when he’s not “playing he’s still trying to win every post.”

Almost 12 months after that cleanout on Stormers’ Sebelo Senatla, for which an agitated Aki protested with the referee after his red card, the 33-year-old is set to play the biggest game of his career.

As fate would have it, the All Blacks will be at the other end of the Stade de France turf on Saturday night and Aki will be up against the talented Jordy Barrett.

If Aki had stayed in New Zealand, he might have pushed his Test claims and one day donned the famous black jersey. But there’s no doubting how he looks at home on the green, setting up a helluva matchup with Barrett this weekend.

“Two very different footballers, I think,” asked the friend assessing the matchup. “Bundy in the form of his life, I really enjoyed the way Bundy played against Ireland in the Scotland match. They didn’t hit him, he kept running those holes and defenders had to sit on him because he was playing so well. .

“So the big question is are they going to do the same thing this weekend or are they going to hit him early and get his hands on the footy. I think Jordy Barrett is an exceptional footballer as well, so it’s going to be a great matchup I think.

“Pound for pound, Bundy is the stronger athlete and probably the guy you fear the most if you’re in the black jersey. With Jordi, I think he’s got a really fine skill set; he’s got the kicking game, the footwork; He’s got pace, height, strength and length, all these things, which can challenge the opposition, so Bundy will have to be at his best as he’s got a fine change of foot on the line.

“But it should be one of the few brilliant matchups, it will make this quarter-final one of the most watched quarter-finals in world rugby, I would imagine.”

Friend will soon return home to Australia, where he is unsure of what the future holds. But given his overseas experience, previous stints with the Brumbies and the men’s Australian sevens team, Rugby Australia would seem crazy not to involve him in some capacity going forward, especially given the current status quo.

But he will be overjoyed in Ireland this weekend, with Aki and his other Connacht charges, including Australian-born players Mack Hansen and Finley Belham, in particular, hoping the Emerald Isle’s time is now.

“It would be fantastic for the country, it really would be. You can see the energy around any game in Ireland at the moment. Fans travel far and wide to support their team, they buy jerseys, they support their team, they sing. And I think the team has been brilliant in getting them involved, they know they’re the 16th or 24th person, however you want to look at it.

“So if Ireland continue on this winning streak, it will be Ireland’s greatest sporting achievement in my opinion. Because it’s a small country, it’s a country with some exceptional rugby players, but more importantly an exceptional system that’s been built and this Allows players to hone their skills and hone their craft in the game of rugby, then go on to represent their country.

“So I think it’s going to be awesome. They’re three wins away from doing it, and if they can do it, I think it’s going to be awesome.”

Whether it’s “Zombie” or “Bundi”, one can imagine if the song is sung.



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