From Bank Teller to the top of the Rugby Mountain: The Origins of Bundee Aki

From Bank Teller to the top of the Rugby Mountain: The Origins of Bundee Aki

Normally, you'd be hard-pressed to find similarities between a bank teller working on the other side of the world and a World Rugby Player of the Year nominee. 

But Bundee Aki doesn't do normal.

The Connacht and Irish talisman has had a unique journey to rugby stardom, and his origin story is one centred on the very values of his game: Sacrifice, family, and an unrelenting drive for success

As a young man growing up in the Auckland suburb of Manurewa, Fua Leiofi Bundellu Aki played for the First XV of Manurewa high school and harboured dreams of playing professional rugby.

Yet the journey to professional rugby is not one immediately paved with riches, and like many young players Aki soon faced a choice whether to continue his career or to earn a living elsewhere. At 18, Aki made the difficult decision to pause his professional ambitions and take up work as a bank teller in order to provide for his young family.

In his own words, he 'had to sacrifice the thing I liked most' to support the people he loved.

But these ambitions never wavered, and soon he caught the eye of All Black legend and Counties Manukau Steelers coach Tana Umaga who invited him to join their set-up. After impressing for the Steelers - including helping them win promotion to the Premier division of the ITM cup, New Zealand’s domestic competition - Aki was signed to the Chiefs in 2012.

Off the back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs, Aki could have stayed in New Zealand, with the potential to represent both the All Blacks and Samoa. Instead, he took another risk - taking up Pat Lam's offer to join an up-and-coming Connacht side. Often left in the shadow of their more famous and fancied provincial rivals, Lam had constructed a Connacht team that was being to be touted as a dark horse contender for the old PRO12 - albeit one that had not finished above 8th for the last 12 years.

Within 2 years of his arrival, Connacht had won their first ever PRO12 title with Aki named the player of the tournament.

In Nov 2017, Aki became eligible to play for Ireland through residency and was immediately called up by then Irish coach Joe Schmidt. 7 years later, Aki has made 53 appearances (and counting) for his adopted country and was selected for the prestigious British and Irish Lions tour in 2021. Last year (2023) he was nominated for World Rugby Player of the Year.

Bundee Aki is undeniably a high-impact player in the URC and is the second highest-rated center in this year's URC Top 100.

His high ranking is in no small part due to his physical presence in the contact, placing in the top 18% of all URC backs in dominant contacts since the start of the 2022/23 season, despite an 8-week suspension in September 2022.

Aki pairs his physicality with nimble footwork, routinely breaking the gain line of the world's leading defences in the URC and on the international stage.

In utilising his tactical nous alongside his physical might, Aki disrupts opponents' play, orchestrating try-scoring opportunities for Connacht and Ireland alike.

Whilst he may be a world rugby star now, Aki has never forgotten his origins. He still lives in Oranmore, the small Town in Galway where he first moved to in 2014, and when he takes the pitch, his children’s initials can often be found written on his wrist tape.

13 years since his brief spell as a bank teller, Bundee Aki continues to blaze a unique path in the URC.

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