Rugby World Cup 2019: Bundee Aki aims to do Ireland proud in Japan

Bundee Aki celebrates after Ireland's victory over Wales earlier this month
Aki has become a popular figure in Galway since joining Connacht in 2014
2019 Rugby World Cup
Hosts: Japan Dates: 20 September to 2 November
Coverage: Full commentary on every game across BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

Bundee Aki has vowed to keep doing Ireland proud despite admitting "some people won't be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey".

The New Zealand-born centre is expected to start for Ireland in Sunday's World Cup opener against Scotland - two years after earning his first cap.

Ireland's policy of picking foreign-born players has angered some, but Aki remains unfazed.

"People have their own opinions, which is fair," said Aki, 29.

"They're more than able to have their own opinion. That's how they think and how they approach it. I highly respect them for that."

Luke Fitzgerald in action for Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final defeat by Argentina in 2015
Luke Fitzgerald is among those to have criticised the IRFU's project players policy

Ex-Ireland stars question 'project players'

Former Ireland players Neil Francis and Luke Fitzgerald have repeatedly hit out at the nation's 'project players', which has seen a number of foreign-born stars qualify for their adopted country on residency grounds.

New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster, meanwhile, said directly of Aki last November: "They've turned him into an Irishman - he looks like an Irishman now, doesn't he?"

New Zealand-born with Samoan heritage, Aki left Auckland to seek a new life for his family in 2014 - settling in Galway and thriving with Connacht.

He duly qualified for Ireland, making his Test debut in 2017 and becoming a formidable midfield presence in head coach Joe Schmidt's squad.

Aki has received widespread plaudits for his commitment to the Galway community as much as Connacht's ranks.

"When I first came over my ambition was to play at an international level, but obviously it's never a given," said Aki.

"It was such a hard decision to move over with my family but Ireland has welcomed me with open arms.

"Connacht have supported me from day one when I first arrived in Galway.

"I call it my home at the moment and I'm sure people will feel like I'm one of them as well."

When Aki quit rugby for bank job

Aki was nearly lost to rugby forever when he quit the sport to work as an Auckland bank teller to provide for his young family.

Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga went into Aki's branch to coax the hard-hitting centre into another crack at the professional game.

Foster's comments on Aki in November only served to fire up one of the emotional heartbeats of Ireland's ranks, and Schmidt's men duly downed New Zealand 16-9 for their first win over the All Blacks in Dublin.

World Rugby has extended the residency qualification period from three to five years, to come into effect from January.

The governing body's vice-chairman Agustin Pichot questioned Ireland's decision to select South Africa-born Jean Kleyn ahead of Devin Toner for the World Cup, bringing the 'project player' issue right back into the spotlight.

That sparked renewed debate over Ireland's overseas-born contingent, with centre Chris Farrell hailing Aki in particular for laying down robust roots in Galway.

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