Willie Ripia opens up about rugby comeback
Willie Ripia admits playing eight games for the Bay of Plenty development team mightn't be the best preparation for his return to the New Zealand Maori side but it certainly gave him a new appreciation of life and that's as important as anything right now.
Ripia, battling the demons of compulsive gambling that saw his Super Rugby career disintegrate, leaves with the Maori team on their UK tour tomorrow determined to make the most of this sporting lifeline thrown to him by Jamie Joseph.
Ripia admitted he had considered his rugby career to be over after leaving Perth in disgrace in January, because it would be easier to "just run away".
But his counsellors said to him that fronting up and playing rugby was a better way to express himself.
"It was definitely hard," he said of turning out for the Steamers back-up team.
"I guess the biggest thing was play development rugby with people who work for a living, who leave their families for the weekend, train late, have to travel an hour to get to training ... that was quite humbling. Coming from the professional environment and seeing that makes you think, well rugby, it's awesome in New Zealand. It brings that passion back and makes you want to work that little bit harder and get back to the top.
"They were a great bunch of blokes and it was a catalyst towards definitely wanting to give this a massive crack and get back out on field again."
Ripia certainly didn't envisage getting selected for New Zealand Maori, a team he played two games for two years ago.
But he jumped at the chance when Joseph called offering him a tour position.
"I didn't have to think about it at all. To say no to a team like this would be pretty silly, being a Maori boy.
"The daunting part was having to get on that road and shed a few kilos and knowing I have to be quite fit and be physically and mentally ready to get out there and play some tough football."
Ripia admitted Joseph and his assistant Daryl Gibson had taken a risk, simply because of his lack of top rugby.
"And when you take in what happened, it's a real high risk. They have spoken to me about that and what's easiest for me to help the team. I did a lot of work before I came into the camp. I've prepared myself as best I can, we'll see how we go."
Ripia's most daunting moment was addressing the Maori team when they assembled on Saturday night, something he initiated.
He bravely spoke to the media today with the sort of courage he showed in fronting his new team mates with such honesty.
"I could have just sat in the background but with my personality I cant do that, I have step up ... that's part of my process. I'd been thinking about it since the team got named.
"I had to address the team. You never want to be in a team environment where you're treated differently. I had to lay out that I don't want to be that (previous) person.
"I have to earn their trust because trust is huge and without trust a team isn't really going get anywhere. It's something.
"I'll have to drive, and have to continually drive. They're a great bunch of blokes. So far it's been good but it's only a couple of days. We'll see how we've gone in a week."
Ripia said he hadn't had any contact with his former Western Force team mates where he left in disgrace amidst allegations of dressing room theft.
"I don't expect them to come and talk to me. When all that happened as rugby player and a person, what can you say; what can u do? It's a sad thing. It's something I built, something I have to live with and if there ever comes a chance I can talk to them, I'm more than willing to have a chat with them."
Asked how his previous Maori experience rated, Ripia didn't hesitate: "Oh, huge. As a player you don't really understand how massive it is compared to my parents and my family. It's the world to them.
"But it's a massive part of my heart ... as a Maori boy growing up seeing your idols, your Carlos Spencers and that playing.
"It's definitely huge for me and I thing putting on that jersey last night and taking photos brought back memories and the reality that I'm back in amongst the fold and that the best of times are going to happen."