Piri Weepu hears the footsteps. He senses the young generation snapping at his heels.
But he is used to this fight. He has been here, many times, before.
Weepu realises ground is being lost. He is well aware of the need to repay the faith, and leeway, given to him this year, by making immediate impact in Saturday's opening Rugby Championship match, against the Wallabies in Sydney.
Much has changed since Weepu was anointed the All Blacks' saviour after multiple injuries struck down Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden during last year's World Cup triumph.
Weepu captured hero status for his assured guidance in the knockout stages against Argentina and Australia, before losing his golden glow in the final.
Weepu's 59-test career follows a similar tale of ups and downs.
The 28-year-old, Wainuiomata's favourite son, has battled frequent fitness and form slumps. He, again, appears at a crossroads.
This year's move from the Hurricanes to the Blues was anything but smooth. Weepu went backwards.
He turned up in Auckland out of shape after an extended break and struggled to display his trademark playmaking qualities. Being shifted between nine and 10 didn't help his cause.
Experience alone saw him included for the three-test sweep of Ireland in June.
There was considerable angst from the Crusaders' territory when he was picked on reputation over Andy Ellis, though that selection has since been justified.
Through intensive individual training sessions, including early-morning boxing sessions, Weepu shed the extra weight. The benefits of that commitment may now come to fruition, but Weepu wants more than a role off the bench behind Manawatu's snappy Aaron Smith.
“You've got to work hard to be involved in this team. You can't take things for granted. I've been in and out quite often, actually,” Weepu reflected yesterday as the All Blacks ramped up their training in Auckland with the defence of the Bledisloe Cup firmly on their minds.
Smith seems to have snared the No 9 shirt with his sharp distribution skills. And with nuggety Chiefs halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow being called into the All Blacks' camp this week and eyeing a place on the end-of-year tour, plus injured Hurricanes prodigy TJ Perenara waiting in the wings, Weepu knows the time is now to remind the selectors, and public, what he is capable of.
If he cannot rekindle his unique subtle passing and calm direction that set him apart in the expanded four-team tournament, he risks being rapidly overtaken by the new breed.
“Throughout the whole season it's been like that. How I started out wasn't the greatest, but I've worked my arse off to get back here,” Weepu said, clearly impressed with Kerr-Barlow's season.
“Being here in camp is a big thing for him. He's an up-and-coming young guy that could be coming in soon. Learning as much as he can from myself and the boys that are involved in the team is good for his progression.
“He's probably a bit more physical than I am. You saw how good he went in the semi and final with the Chiefs. I'm pretty sure he'll be knocking at the door.”
- © Fairfax NZ News
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