CARVER Essay-Bundee Aki

This essay is an extract from Be the Best You Can Be in Sport- A Book for Irish Youth.

Bundee Aki is an Irish International Rugby Player. He has won a New Zealand Super Rugby title with the Chiefs in 2013 and a Pro12 title with Connacht in 2016. In 2015–16 he was named Pro12 Player of the Season. He also won a Six Nations Championship with Ireland in 2018. He has an interesting story to tell and here he shares the obstacles he had to overcome to build a life for himself as a professional rugby player.

My journey to playing for Connacht and Ireland has taken many twists and turns. I was born in New Zealand. At birth, I was named Fua Leiofi, but was called Bundellu after the doctor who delivered me. The nickname “Bundee” was given to me by my rugby coach as a child and it has stuck ever since. From a young age I loved the game of rugby and all I wanted to do was play.

As with most journeys in life, my path hit a bump in the road which saw me quitting rugby for a period. In my late teens I became a father and, with this, brought responsibility. I took a job in the bank in order to financially support my new family. Shortly afterwards, I was invited to New Zealand U 20 trials and managed to balance the first two stages of the three stage trial process with my work commitments in the bank. I was actually late for the second trial due to missing a flight after work but despite this, I still made it through to the third and final trial. This brought more scheduling conflicts for me. Work wouldn’t allow me any more time off so I was forced to make a tough choice. I had to choose between my job and my dream. I chose my job because I had a young family who were depending on my income from it. It was a tough call but one I felt I had to make. I then chose to walk away from rugby completely and focus fully on my job in the bank and looking after and providing for my family. To support my family, I felt I had to sacrifice the thing I liked most, which was rugby.

I must admit that part of my decision to quit rugby at the time was that I was unsure as to whether I would make it as a professional or not. There were so many good young players surrounding me at the time. The bank offered me stability and a career path. Rugby came with no guarantees and a very uncertain career path. Due to my personal circumstances, I opted for stability. You could argue that fear played a part in my decision but my family’s welfare had to come first.

Life in the bank went well and I soon found myself in a new branch with a new manager, Kalo Payne-Smith, who was a rugby fanatic. I kept a keen eye on rugby and, watching my peers I had played with and against, I began to get a gnawing feeling that I was at least good enough to be there with them and that I could make it. My period in the bank was a time where I matured greatly. Having a stable family life helped with this also. For me, many of the qualities I would need on my second coming to rugby were definitely developed during this period.

With no training or matches, a sedentary lifestyle as a bank official and a love of food, I sat at approximately 18 kgs over my current playing weight the day All- Black legend Tana Umaga came to visit me in the bank. At the time, Tana was Counties Manukua Coach and had heard about my playing potential from a number of sources. We talked in the bank and there and then he offered me a trial period with Counties. I was faced with another choice, the comfort and security of the bank or the uncertainty of rugby. I discussed it with my partner and my rugby- mad bank manager, Kalo. Kalo offered to be flexible with me in the bank and urged me to take on the challenge.

The trial period involved me training with the academy at 6 am in the morning. This would see me leaving home at 5:10am for a 35-minute drive to training. I would train at 6am and head straight to work in the bank afterwards. After work, I would go straight to training with a local amateur rugby club I had joined…I needed all the training I could get. I’d return home at about 9 o’clock at night. This was my routine for three days of the week and then on the weekend was more training and games.

Another big choice came for me and my family when Counties offered me a contract worth 15,000 NZ Dollars. This was significantly less than my job in the bank was paying and was far from an easy choice for me and my partner. This time I chose to back myself and follow my dream. I did so with a renewed drive and an increased level of maturity. My time had come and I was ready.

And so you can see that behind the big names in the big games are ordinary people who have overcome many setbacks and challenges and been forced to make hard decisions. I am now both happy and proud to play for Connacht and Ireland. I know I have many setbacks and challenges ahead of me in rugby but I also know I can overcome them. Had I not gone back to rugby I would have missed out on so much. I would have never known what could have been. My choices were difficult for me, I had a lot at stake and I had to overcome fear. I guess that’s something we all have to overcome.

I wish you well on your journey,

Bundee Aki

Copyright Paul Kilgannon 2021
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