Kiwi Pumipi takes second chance with Dragons

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014

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New Zealander Shane Pumipi had his setbacks trying to make it into the NRL, but Chris Barclay discovers how he's managed to put his issues behind him and carve out a career at the Dragons.

Dad literally drove him to succeed as a professional sportsman when he was 14, yet it took father-of-two Shane Pumipi until last month to finally reach his destination.

Ian Pumipi knew the way from Dargaville to Auckland's Mt Albert one winter's Sunday morning in 2004, yet his boy twice headed towards a potential dead-end before a journey south of Sydney enabled the 24-year-old to fulfil a childhood goal.

‘I wanted to stay with my friends for the weekend but Dad woke me up the next morning and said we're going to Auckland," Pumipi told Sunday News.

"He said ‘bring your boots'. We turned up at a field in Mt Albert and he said 'you're playing league today'."

Pumipi was more familiar with rugby in Northland but soon had to handle a code switch and a new learning environment at Mt Albert Grammar, where he was in the same class as Sam McKendry, Bill Tupou and Sam Kasiano - a trio on the fast track to first grade.

Their team-mate, however, took a more circuitous route via Sutherland Shire, Canterbury-Bankstown and Illawarra before he graduated.

Boarding was not quite a home away from home but Pumipi adapted better to house life than when he turned up in Cronulla in late 2007 after being scouted by the Sharks while playing for Northcote.

"It probably wasn't a good move for me, coming over by myself. I was led astray quite a bit. You learn from those experiences," he said.

Pumipi's ill-discipline wasn't as evident - or notorious - as Todd Carney's latest atrocity, but it did culminate in him joining the Bulldogs, where relationship difficulties eventually saw him exiled from Belmore.

"I had a fulltime gig but I had a few family issues that got me in trouble," he said.

He joined the Dragons' feeder team, the Cutters, last year and impressed coach Paul McGregor - so when Steve Price was axed in late May after a 36-0 loss to Parramatta, the former Steelers and Dragons centre promoted one of his players when he took over.

"I just tried to work hard and play for the Cutters, so this is a bonus.

"Mary (McGregor) has had quite a big influence on me. He said ‘work hard and good things will happen'," Pumipi said.

He made his debut against South Sydney on June 2 at ANZ Stadium and despite a 19-point loss he was rapt to make the interchange bench and then match up against Kiwis hooker Issac Luke.

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"It was a big buzz. I look up to Issac. That's the kind of player I want to be."

Playing the Storm was another highlight and he was also on the bench as Mitch Rein's deputy for last Saturday's round-17 win over Johnathan Thurston's North Queensland in Sydney.

"I'm happy," he said, appreciating the opportunity after considering life after football.

"If I didn't play [for the Dragons] this year I was going to focus on playing somewhere else to make a bit of money to support my kids (aged 4 and 2) or give it away and just go and work."

Cash-strapped Pumipi, who needed a pair of boots from Dragons' director Sean O'Connor when he arrived from Sydney, was upgraded to a first-grade deal last month and although off-contract at the end of the season and hopeful of staying with the club.

Benji Marshall has been a source of guidance at the Dragons and the former Kiwis and Wests Tigers playmaker certainly hasn't been too big for his boots since returning from a failed bid to make the All Blacks.

"He's confident, he comes up and talks to you. He takes care of the young fullahs," said Pumipi, who has already benefited from Marshall's friendship.

"He seems to be getting boots every week - he had a pair that were too big so he chucked them my way," he smiled.

- Sunday News

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