Sekope Kepu - Aussie No 1 that got away
Sekope Kepu returns to Auckland next week delighted his New Zealand relatives will be dressed in green and gold on the Eden Park terraces - and hoping he can provide headaches for two All Blacks officials who were instrumental in his football development.
While Kepu, 25, is firmly entrenched with the Waratahs, his roots are deeply Auckland, where he was educated and transformed from a flashy back-rower to such an accomplished prop that he will be part of the Wallabies' front row to play the All Blacks on August 6.
Kepu has certainly grabbed his opportunity. With Waratahs team-mate Benn Robinson sidelined, Kepu has taken over the test loosehead prop position, and despite returning from an extensive lay-off due to a knee injury, played the full 80 minutes against Samoa and South Africa.
While all aspects of the Wallabies' performance against the Springboks were above average, the sturdy nature of the Australian scrum was one of the few highlights of an embarrassing loss to Samoa - ensuring that Kepu should keep hold of the No 1 test jersey for some time.
But the pace will pick up considerably next week when Kepu heads home. Born in Sydney, Kepu spent three years in Tonga before moving to Auckland where he went to the same school as Jonah Lomu, Wesley College. In his teenage years, Kepu was a Wesley rugby standout, making the New Zealand under-17s team as a No 8.
After making the New Zealand under-19s, Mike Cron, the All Blacks scrum coach, turned his life upside-down. At the team camp, Cron walked up to Kepu and said: ''You're moving to the front row. I want to teach you how to be a loosehead.''
''That was it. From that moment I never went back to No 8,'' Kepu said yesterday.
The reason had a lot to do with what was going into his mouth at the time. ''I had just finished school and wasn't really looking after myself, in particular my diet. So I was putting on a bit of beef. They already saw I had the running skills but now had the bulk to be a prop.''
The transformation was rapid. Within four months he was a representative loosehead. ''You can say it was a massive learning experience. I went over to South Africa with the under-19 team and discovered what it was like to be dished up and folded all ways. I wasn't finding it much fun having my neck bent backwards.''
On his return from South Africa, Kepu wanted to be a No 8 again. However, Steve Hansen, the All Blacks assistant coach then in charge of the age-representative teams, ''got wind of it, gave me a call, and told me to stay in the front row''. So he did.
Appearances for Counties Manukau in the New Zealand National Provincial Championship grabbed the attention of then Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie, and with the aid of an Australian passport, Kepu was Sydney bound in 2008.
Within three years, he has become a fully fledged Wallaby, providing substance at an important time when Australia has lost four props - Robinson, James Slipper, Salesi Ma'afu and Ben Daley. And now comes the chance to play at a ground and city he knows so well.
''Growing up in New Zealand, you dream of being an All Black. If I get selected to play against them... would be massive, but to play them at a ground so special as Eden Park would be incredible,'' Kepu said.
''I still have a lot of my family over there... but they all now support Australia. Looks as if I'll have to round up some tickets for them.''
Sydney Morning Herald