Troubled rugby star Willie Ripia has quickly won the respect and admiration of his New Zealand Maori team mates as they get set to tour England.
Ripia addressed the team when they assembled in Auckland on Saturday night, talking them through the gambling issues that cost him his Super Rugby career. Ripia left the Western Force in disgrace in January with allegations of dressing room theft hanging over him though police were not involved as it was dealt with in-house.
Now offered hope of a career revival with this step back to top rugby, Ripia has clearly made an immediate impact on his fellow players who make up the special group that is the national Maori side.
Senior players Ross Filipo and Tim Bateman were both open in their admiration of Ripia fronting up to them about his troubles.
"I think that's a real testament to his character. He's managed to go away and find the right help that he needed and rebuild himself as a man and as a person," Filipo said of Ripia, who played two matches for the Maori side in 2010.
"The team hugely respected that as he stood in front of us and spoke to us. That was a really awesome thing to receive from him - for him to share that with us.
"The team has full faith in Willie. There is no issue there. It's good to have him back. He's an amazing player and an amazing bloke. People fall on tough times right through all walks of life, so for us it's about this group helping him getting back into the right places he wants to be."
Bateman said it took courage for Ripia to talk to the squad straight away. Ripia had made it clear he wanted to earn their trust back. Now it was about the first-five getting on with being the key playmaker in the team for the three matches in Britain that includes a clash with the Canadian test side.
The new-look Maori squad got through two vigorous training sessions under coaches Jamie Joseph and Daryl Gibson in Auckland yesterday.
The only hiccup is a double injury to rugged loose forward Karl Lowe. He will have a scan today to check out a calf strain that was complicated by a hamstring twinge on the opposite leg as he compensated for the original injury. The Maori will take no risks with the squad leaving for the UK tomorrow.
For Filipo, the tour is a huge bonus.
The four test All Black left New Zealand in 2009 for stints in France and England, returning this year with thoughts of giving the game away at the top level.
But he was persuaded to play for Wellington and did enough to make the Maori side as well as earn a Super Rugby contract with the Chiefs for next year.,
"These last couple of months have been really exciting, really refreshing and it's reinvigorated me," the 33-year-old said.
"I'm looking forward to this tour. It's a bonus. I had no real expectation on myself to make the team. Even to play ITM Cup was a last minute decision and everything has fallen into place again. I've come full circle and to be back with the Maori All Blacks is fantastic. I'm really rapt that Jamie (Joseph) has shown faith in me.
"Brad Thorn has always set good examples for us older guys so I'll try and follow in his footsteps." Filipo said.
Filipo was in the Maori squads from 2005 to 2008 and was part of the famous win over the British & Irish Lions in Hamilton in 2005. He said he was focussed on re-establishing himself in the side but was motivated by the traditions that come with this team.
He said it was "hugely important" that the Maori side continued to operate at the high standards that have made them so respected amongst international opposition.
"We pride ourselves on our past performances and everything that has gone on previously. It's kind of who we are - honouring our ancestors and recognising that and taking it forward into the future. So this tour is hugely important for us to build on the legacy."
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