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Ireland ‘hugely proud’ of Aki embodying spirit of adopted nation, Ruddock says

New Zealand-born Bundee Aki has been criticised for chasing a Test career with Joe Schmidt’s squad.

Rhys Ruddock has hailed the influence of Bundee Aki, pictured, in the Ireland squad (Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA)
Rhys Ruddock has hailed the influence of Bundee Aki, pictured, in the Ireland squad (Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA)

By Nick Purewal, PA

Ireland are “hugely proud” of the way Bundee Aki embodies the spirit of representing his adopted nation, according to Rhys Ruddock.

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Bullish Connacht centre Aki has this week stood firm on his status as an Ireland player, and now his team-mates have also leapt to his defence.

New Zealand-born with Samoan heritage, the 29-year-old Aki has been criticised in some quarters for chasing a Test career with Joe Schmidt’s squad.

Aki has not only qualified for Ireland on residency, he has also since rejected strong overtures from France to continue to commit to Connacht.

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Bundee Aki, pictured, has proved a mainstay for Ireland since qualifying on residency in 2017 (Brian Lawless/PA)

A range of former Ireland players have hit out at Ireland’s naturalised stars, while New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster said directly of Aki in November: “They’ve turned him into an Irishman – he looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?”

Ireland’s players regard Aki as among their most committed and focused, as Leinster loose-forward Ruddock was at pains to point out.

“We’re hugely proud of him,” said Rhys Ruddock of his team-mate.

“I don’t think anyone could argue that he’s one of the people who most displays the values of the group, and every time you see him play for Ireland you really see the passion and the emotion that he brings.

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Rhys Ruddock, left, has spoken out in defence of Ireland team-mate Bundee Aki (Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA)

“And I think he represents the jersey with pride every single time.”

Ruddock is joined by brother and strength and conditioning coach Ciaran in Ireland’s World Cup ranks.

Born to an Irish mother with their father just happening to be Wales’ 2005 Grand Slam-winning coach Mike, the Ruddock brothers know a thing or two about complicated backgrounds.

Rhys Ruddock admitted hearing his and his brother’s Welsh accents could lead some to make snap judgements on their loyalties or heritage.

And that has left the 28-year-old star in no doubt  about what matters most when it comes to his team-mates.

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Mike Ruddock, pictured, led Wales to the 2005 Grand Slam (Daniel Hambury/PA)

“Obviously people have opinions on these things. But people might not know our full situation or our background,” said Rhys Ruddock.

“If they just hear the accent they might have an opinion on us playing for Ireland and representing Ireland. But it is what it is.

“I think everyone in the group is hugely proud (of Aki) and there’s a huge responsibility associated with putting on the jersey, but I think everyone represents the group massively well within this squad, so it’s great.”

The Ruddock brothers both broke through the ranks at Leinster, but while Rhys has gone on to captain both province and country, lock Ciaran was unable to make a success of his top-level rugby.

Ciaran Ruddock reacted to the setback of missing out on an extended professional rugby career by launching what has become a hugely-successful fitness business.

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Ciaran Ruddock, centre, in action for the Barbarians (David Cheskin/PA)

The thriving Dublin gym Fitter, Faster, Stronger proved the platform for him to force his way into the Ireland set-up via the route less travelled.

Relishing the World Cup experience with his brother, Ciaran Ruddock believes his reaction to missing out on a lengthy playing career underscores the value of hard graft.

“It’s been a brilliant experience with Ireland,” he said.

“Obviously I got the opportunity in November and since then I’ve loved it.

“It’s been awesome working with (Ireland strength and conditioning boss) Jason (Cowman). You’ve got a guy there with so much experience and knowledge.

“It’s been one of the best educational things I have done as a coach, to be able to work with him and learn from him.

“And also to be involved in this environment with so many good coaches, to work with the calibre of athletes I get to work with every day in here and even just the quality of people.

“To have the opportunity to come over here, to Japan, and be part of a World Cup, I’m absolutely delighted with it and loving every minute of it.”

PA

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