Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Bundee looks to fit the bill

Bundee Aki is vying for the Chiefs No 12 jersey, worn last year by a certain Sonny Bill, writes Andrew Alderson.

BREAKOUT SEASON: Bundee Aki announced his arrival with a stunning try for Counties Manukau against Southland. Photo / Photosport
BREAKOUT SEASON: Bundee Aki announced his arrival with a stunning try for Counties Manukau against Southland. Photo / Photosport

During the ITM Cup, new Chiefs midfielder Bundee Aki would have had few troubles producing a skite tape to impress the coaching staff of the Super Rugby champions.

There was a wealth of material as he helped his Counties Manukau side win the Championship, perhaps best highlighted by a try against Southland in round one at the end of August. Aki took a ball on the cut from former Manurewa High School first XV team-mate Tim Nanai-Williams, 10m inside his own half.

He scythed through the Southland defence as if escaping henchmen in a James Bond film. Tacklers clutched air as Aki finally planted the ball centimetres from the right-hand corner flag. It seemed appropriate he was wearing a jersey sponsored by Auto Control Ltd. He resembled a hip-hop version of Forrest Gump gliding to the line.

Aki was signed to the Chiefs within a month.

This season, the 22-year-old will contest the No 12 jersey vacated by Sonny Bill Williams.

With Jackson Willison moving to the Blues, Aki's main competitor will be Charlie Ngatai. Richard Kahui is expected to play centre, while utility Andrew Horrell is another midfield option should injury strike.

Williams' absence poses a challenge for the Chiefs as they seek successive titles. Aki is wise enough to avoid trying to emulate all his predecessor's skills.

"They're big shoes to fill and I would struggle to match Sonny Bill for size. Instead I'm trying to evolve my game by working hard on my skills and my weaknesses - like connecting in defence.

"I think one of my strengths is my pace. Counties Manukau helped me use it around the contact area. I'm not a big guy so I preferred using my footwork to fight through [defences]. The important thing is nailing down that No 12 spot."

The ITM Cup off-season initially took its toll. Aki arrived at pre-season training weighing around 100kg and blaming a regular intake of corned beef, taro and chop suey.

He has since returned to what he considers his optimum playing weight of 92kg thanks to the Chiefs fitness regime, which includes activities like Thursday's 56.6km swim-run-bike-walk from Waihi Beach to Mt Te Aroha.

Aki has received heavyweight mentoring in recent months before his Chiefs arrival. Counties Manukau coach Tana Umaga offered his backing.

"He's one of the best helpers I could get in my position," Aki says. "Having a legend telling you what to do and how to play the game is one of the best things I can cherish. His main advice is 'don't be afraid to have a crack. Never doubt yourself because even if you make a mistake, you can always adjust'."

Aki says he also benefits from the presence of Counties Manukau team-mates Nanai-Williams, Augustine Pulu and Mahonri Schwalger.

Chiefs co-captain Craig Clarke says Aki brings plenty of energy: "It seeps out of him and it's already helping shape this year's group. He's right into things every day, laughing along but focused at the same time."

Talking to Aki, there is a sense he is grounded, something that comes from experiencing life in the Monday-to-Friday work force, rather than playing in a rugby bubble from school to ITM Cup to Super Rugby.

Aki took a year out from pursuing his full-time professional rugby dream in 2011. He worked as a bank teller at Westpac to earn the money needed to adjust to life with a young family. Bundee and fiancee Kayla have two children, Armani and Adrianna, whose initials appear on his taped wrists when he's playing.

"I took that time away to look after my family. It helped me grow as a person. Having children around helped my time management," he says with a wry grin.

"To support my family, I had to sacrifice the thing I liked most, which was rugby. I always believed I could fight my way through it."

- Herald on Sunday

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