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prestigious honour I owe everything to west of Ireland community, says Lions ace Bundee Aki

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Bundee Aki looks forward to representing Connacht on the Lions tour

Bundee Aki looks forward to representing Connacht on the Lions tour

Bundee Aki

Bundee Aki

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Bundee Aki looks forward to representing Connacht on the Lions tour

It has been 38 years since a Connacht player toured with the Lions and the significance of that is not lost on Bundee Aki.

This summer, Aki will become just the fourth Connacht representative to earn the prestigious honour, which further highlights the Kiwi’s achievement.

When Aki first arrived in Galway in 2014, he was immediately welcomed with open arms by the people of the west of Ireland.

Since then, it has blossomed into a special relationship that transcends what happens for the 80 minutes on the pitch every weekend.

Aki may not have been born and bred in the west, yet he has become one of the most recognisable faces in that part of the country.

Galway is now very much home for the Ireland centre and his young family, who have never forgotten how they were made to feel part of the tight-knit community after leaving New Zealand.

When Connacht’s talisman pulls on the famous red Lions jersey in South Africa this summer, he will no doubt reflect on his journey to get to this point, but there will also be a strong recognition for what the province and its people have done for him.

“It means a lot to me,” Aki admits.

“I have said it before, when I first arrived the overwhelming welcome that I got from the Connacht community when I first arrived with my family, it was unbelievable. They were so good to my family, so supportive from day one.

“I could see how close and tight the community is, getting messages and letters from people I don’t know, the community that I live in in Oranmore putting up signs and it just shows how grateful I am to be part of a small community regardless of where I was and where I came from.

“The support I have from here is unbelievable and I’m so grateful to be part of this community and to represent it.

“I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for the help of the people in the community.

“I’m proud to be representing Connacht, as well as my family and Ireland. I won’t be taking it lightly. It’s a huge honour and I’ll definitely take it with both hands.”

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Aki was a surprise inclusion in Warren Gatland’s squad for many people, but back home in Connacht, they always believed their adopted son was destined for the Lions stage.

It has been an eventful seven years to get to this point and while Aki has had to silence critics along the way, he has earned his Lions place on merit.

“I don’t think I have changed much as a person,” he reflects.

“Obviously I am a bit more mature but that comes with age.

“From the day I got here, I just grew as a person, grew my knowledge as a person, started to live trying to embrace all of the cultural stuff here in Galway, embrace the community.

“I think I have been doing that very well in trying to interact with the community. I think I have done that and (I will) moving forward hopefully.”

Aki was part of the Lions group who met up last week for the first time and the giddiness which greeted his inclusion in the squad hadn’t dissipated at all.

For many of the players getting ready to tour South Africa, they have been on a Lions tour before, but for Aki, this is uncharted territory.

“It was obviously just a team briefing as a group,” he says.

“We just chatted and introduced ourselves, just chit chat, it wasn’t anything about rugby.

“It was an induction day, trying to get everyone together and get a feel for each other and be able to create a good vibe.

“I certainly felt that for the first day and night that we had together, it was a good way to start.”

Growing up in Auckland, the Lions were a big deal, but the idea of playing for them never really entered the equation until he came to live in Ireland.

“Rugby takes you on different pathways in your career and I was lucky enough to come here to Galway to be able to play for Connacht, then lucky enough to represent Ireland and then for the Lions this year,” the New Zealander adds.

“I have watched the Lions obviously when I got here, the tour they had in New Zealand. The Lions are a big thing, to be able to be picked among four countries is a huge honour.

“People say it is the pinnacle of a rugby career and I think it is as well. Some countries don’t have that luxury to be able to go further up after international rugby.

“International rugby is as high as you can get, whereas here in Europe to be able to be selected for the Lions is really huge.”

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