Impressive Irish system has drawn the very best from talented Kiwi-born trio

Bundee Aki, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park have proved huge assets in the evolution of Andy Farrell’s formidable Ireland side

The presence of Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe and Bundee Aki in the Irish team for this evening’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final is no longer raising the heckles of the New Zealand media and rugby supporting public like it once did. Facing up to the trio of adopted Irish players has perhaps lost its novelty value, if less so its significance.

Their presence wasn’t mentioned once at any of this week’s press conferences.

Admittedly, one article earlier this week in the New Zealand Herald claimed one-third of Ireland’s starting XV were developed in the southern hemisphere, citing the aforementioned Kiwi-born trio, the Australian-born Mack Hansen, whose mother is Irish, and, eh, Josh van der Flier, on the premise that he had been born in South Africa, whereas, of course, he was born and raised in Wicklow.

The bottom line is that, for all their innate talent, Gibson-Park, Lowe and Aki are also palpably better players for having been further developed in the Irish system than if they had remained in New Zealand.


The same can safely be said of CJ Stander had he stayed in South Africa.

New Zealand, where rugby is the number one sport, and South Africa, where rugby is second only to football, have vastly more playing numbers and a bigger semi-pro playing base at regional/provincial level than is the case in Ireland, where rugby is the country’s fourth team sport.

So, to make the most of their talent pool, Irish rugby has to be very aligned and with the best interests of the national team at heart, and to that end the IRFU has always placed a greater premium on high-calibre coaching across the provinces.

That said, much of the credit for the trio becoming established cogs in this well-oiled Irish machine should really go to the provinces.

Aki had already been lined up by Pat Lam and Connacht before David Nucifora was appointed as the IRFU’s high performance director in June 2014 and joined that same summer from the Chiefs.

True, Nucifora approved all signings thereafter but when Leinster brought Jamison Gibson-Park over from the Hurricanes in 2016 he was ostensibly signed as back-up to Luke McGrath, who himself spent much of the ensuing four-year cycle as Irish understudy to Conor Murray.

Instead, Gibson-Park has supplanted Murray with Ireland and McGrath at Leinster, in that order really.

In truth, the best value signings for the provinces are Test-quality players who don’t play any international rugby. A prime example was Isa Nacewa. Not only could Nacewa play everywhere from ‘9′ to ‘15′, but after suffering a broken wrist early in his Leinster career, he was relatively indestructible, playing 185 games over eight seasons.

He also couldn’t play for the All Blacks due to having earned one cap with Fiji five years before joining Leinster. So, whether a Champions Cup final or the Dragons on a wet Friday night in November or during the Six Nations window, Nacewa was the man. By contrast, Gibson-Park’s availability for Leinster has decreased and ditto Lowe.

Cullen and Leinster had initially identified and courted Israel Dagg as a successor to Nacewa but that did not materialise and the former All Blacks’ fullback was forced to retire prematurely with a knee injury in 2019 at the age of 30.

Instead, partly at Nacewa’s recommendation, Leinster signed Lowe as his long-term successor in 2017, and Lowe was undoubtedly approved by Nucifora with the clear idea of him becoming eligible to play for Ireland under the then three-year residency ruling.

The trio were all at an age when a move was both beneficial financially and still offered the possibility of playing international rugby.

Aki and Gibson-Park were 24, and Lowe was 25, and all are now in their 30s and playing the best rugby of their careers.

Of the trio, Aki looks the most like the one who got away. He had won a Ranfury Shield with Counties Manakua and had been a key figure in the Chiefs’ Super Rugby title charge in 2013.

When he joined Connacht after the following year’s Super Rugby campaign, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were the long-established All Blacks’ midfield pairing, albeit they would retire after winning the 2015 World Cup.

The NZRU/All Blacks had identified Sonny Bill Williams (who was returning from the NRL later that year), Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty as their future midfielders.

But it’s worth noting that after four seasons of playing provincial/Super rugby with Counties and the Chiefs, Aki is now in his tenth season with Connacht. He has helped them win a Pro12 title and having made his debut with Ireland against South Africa in November 2017, Aki has now played 51 times for adopted country over the last seven seasons. Aki and his wife Kayla have four kids, Armani-Jade, Adrianna, Andronikas and Ailbhe, the last two of whom were born in Ireland.

When Gibson-Park first pitched up with Leinster he had played three seasons with the Blues and one with the Hurricanes, when helping them to their inaugural Super Rugby crown in 2016. He had played 40 games in Super Rugby but mostly as understudy to Piri Weepu, Jimmy Cowan and TJ Perenara, so much so that he’d only made seven starts, with his other 33 appearances off the bench.

When Andy Farrell brought him into the Irish set-up and gave Gibson-Park his debut in the rearranged Six Nations game in October 2020 against Italy, Gibson-Park was still second-choice to McGrath at Leinster. Of his first 28 Champions Cup games over the preceding four seasons, five had been as the starting ‘9′, with the other 23 off the bench. The same ol’ same old.

He and wife Patti have three young children, Isabella, and the Irish-born Iris and Jai, and one day they’re liable to ask him was rugby once a 21-man game.

However, after starting three times in place of the injured Conor Murray in the 2021 Six Nations, Gibson-Park became first choice for Ireland the following season. He is into his eighth season with Leinster.

Lowe played for four seasons with the Chiefs from 2014 to 2017, scoring 25 tries in 53 games, and also played four times for the New Zealand Maoris, scoring three tries.

He was reportedly in line for a call-up to the All Blacks squad for a one-off Test against Samoa in 2015 but wasn’t available for selection due to a shoulder operation, but Ben Smith, Reiko Ioane, Julien Savea and Waisake Naholo were all ahead of him at the time, with Sevu Reece and George Bridge also on the All Blacks’ radar.

Lowe himself believes he might well have won a few caps had he stayed and, to his credit, didn’t deny that financial considerations were a factor in his decision to abandon his childhood dream of playing for the All Blacks when joining Leinster. He would also say he felt that the three-year residency ruling was both “stupid” and “weird”.

Now in his seventh season with Leinster and fourth with Ireland, with 12 tries in 25 Tests, Lowe has long since become committed to the Irish cause, as could be seen from his wild celebrations after helping to force a key late turnover in the November 2021 win over the All Blacks. Lowe’s wife Arnica gave birth to Irish-born Nico four months ago.

He’s always had an innate power, an offloading game and a prolific try-scoring rate, but Lowe has also become an inestimably better and fitter all-round player, particularly in his improved work rate on both sides of the ball and his defensive reads, and he makes even more of his left boot with the length and variety of his kicking.

The trio have won 105 caps between them in total, and have become more emotionally invested and attached to their provinces and this more diverse Irish team.

Where the IRFU have stolen a march on not only their Celtic rivals but even long-established rugby superpowers such as New Zealand and South Africa is in developing players that missed the net in those countries. This is true of indigenous products of the clubs, schools and provinces, as well as players who qualify through ancestry or residency.

In truth there has been a relative trickle of Irish players through the residency ruling, it’s just that along with Stander, the trio of Gibson-Park, Lowe and Aki have been huge successes.

Such has been the extent of their influence that Aki holds a 4-1 win-loss record, and 3-0 in starts, against the All Blacks, while Gibson-Park and Lowe are both 3-1.

Critical in their development has been how the provinces and the IRFU have identified and hired high-quality coaches such as Stuart Lancaster. This investment in high-calibre coaches can be evidenced by a cursory glance toward the coaching boxes at this weekend’s quarter-finals.

As well as Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber in the Springboks’ coaching box, there will also be Felix Jones, all of whom coached at Munster.

Standing, and often swaying pensively, in the background behind Ian Foster and the other All Blacks coaches will be, of course, Joe Schmidt, whose legacy after three seasons with Leinster and six with Ireland will endure for many years to come.

Waiting in the wings for tonight’s winners next Friday night in Stade de France will be either Wales or Argentina. The former’s head coach Warren Gatland also left a legacy from his time with both Connacht and Ireland, as did Argentina’s head coach Michael Cheika after his five seasons with Leinster, not to mention Felipe Contepomi’s productive and highly-praised spell as an assistant coach with Leinster.

It’s almost as if everywhere you look this weekend there are coaches who have been a part of this Irish story. Hence, the Irish system is as proficient as anywhere in polishing rough diamonds into jewels.