Cheeky Piri Weepu leaves lasting legacy

WINNERS ARE GRINNERS: All Blacks cult hero Piri Weepu will leave New Zealand rugby this week to take up a contract with London Welsh.
WINNERS ARE GRINNERS: All Blacks cult hero Piri Weepu will leave New Zealand rugby this week to take up a contract with London Welsh.

Cheeky hori isn't exactly a term of endearment. Many other nicknames would be preferred by most. Yet it seems fitting that's how Piri Weepu wants to be remembered.

Only he could term such a blunt title and have it stick. Translated, he's a down-to-earth Maori lad who enjoys good banter and a laugh. Not one of the "cheap people that steal stuff from the Warehouse" as the Urban Dictionary would have you believe.

At times a cult figure throughout his undulating career, Weepu never got swept up in the hype. Family always comes first and ensures he remains grounded. Honesty and humility go hand in hand but a quip is only one sentence away.

Even in the most dire situations, Weepu can lighten the mood. His willingness to be himself and show more personality than most offers a refreshing change.

So to hear him open up about his health struggles this year, which situated around the shock of suffering a minor stroke, was confronting. It put into perspective what he went through and why, after many highlights, the difficult decision was made to leave New Zealand rugby.   

When it comes to the head or heart any problems are magnified. For Weepu, issues first rose while on tour with the Blues in South Africa. Initially, he thought it was delayed concussion. Then the migraines started getting worse. They weren't particularly painful, but would not cease.

"I thought I might have a tumour or something," he recalls. "Getting the head scan was a relief. I was happy but still shocked that I had a minor stroke.

"I've got family friends that have had strokes and for me to go through some of the symptoms in terms of blurred vision, loss of speech and my body not functioning the way it should be... that was scary.  

"But you've got people that have strokes and they're paralysed on one side of their body so I was quite lucky that it wasn't that extreme."

In the modern rugby era many old traditions have been reigned in. Males displaying emotion in-front of their mates - that remains a largely foreign concept. Not just in rugby, either. Most walks of Kiwi society. 

"After all that the hardest thing was telling my team-mates. It wasn't easy telling your peers that, especially when one of my best mates [Ma'a Nonu] is sitting in the same room. I was trying not to look at him just in case...

 "I'm lucky that mum was able to have a 10 second moment and then tried to turn it into a joke to cheer us both up. That's how our family functions. Rather than moping about things we try to mock each other and keep each other happy so we worry about making sure everything is Okay."

Weepu had been through injuries before. In 2010, he broke his leg and thought his World Cup hopes were dashed. While making his comeback with a plate in his leg he held fears it could break again at any moment. This time was different, though. 

"I thought 'is this really going to affect me for the rest of my life'. It's tough trying to watch your team-mates play for survival in the competition. With the stroke and relapse with my ankle it was tough to swallow. It wasn't looking good."

The heart scare was just one decent in Weepu's rollercoaster career. Portrayed the unlikely World Cup hero one minute; vilified about his seemingly constant weight battles the next.

Wellington's Wainuiomata will always be home and so leaving the Hurricanes in 2011 proved another life-changing decision.    

"Leaving home was one of the hardest things to do. It's what I've known for so long. There were troubles at the time with the Hurricanes. Everyone had their thoughts but it was trying something different and challenging myself a bit more by getting away from home and getting away from my family who I'm very close with.

"My motto, and I've learnt it from being a professional, is you can only control yourself. You can't control other people's opinion. Everybody has one.

"People can shoot you down for your weight, fitness... the usual. You can turn it around and use it as motivation, as I have most of my career. That's what I've been trying to do - to prove people wrong."

Regrets? Weepu has none. He would love to convert any of the numerous finals Wellington made into championships. And he might possibly tweak the responses to his first interview after making the All Blacks. Saying his dream was to make the Kiwis rugby league team didn't go down so well.

Then again, he was just being typically honest. He grew up in a league household and, like many siblings, wanted to emulate his older brother who played for the Junior Kiwis and Manly in the NRL.

Playing the rival code, Weepu was the black sheep of the whanu.

"Dad had to learn all the rules - he still doesn't know them now after all these years. That was the dream growing up. I wouldn't want to change it. I've been how I've wanted to be. Not everyone is going to have a perfect career."

Moving to Oxford, and away from his children, is the next challenge. Weepu admits putting more distance between he and his two girls, aged 3 and 4, and son who turns 2 on New Years Eve, will weigh on him. But the healthy pay packet should also enable him to provide for their futures.  

"Not being able to watch them grow is a sacrifice I've had to make the last two or three years. Hopefully that helps them grow. I'm not saying I'm going to be the greatest role model, but at least I can do everything possible to help them.

"I've been playing Super Rugby for 11 years. If there's anytime to try it that's now. It's my only chance to see what their competition is like. It's going to be tough. I'm not going to have all my immediate family around. But it's a chance to get away from all that and to see what the world is like."

After everything he's been through, no-one will begrudge Weepu some fun.

Sunday Star Times