Returning Ross Filipo adds sting to Lions pack
Ross Filipo breathed a sigh of relief at the Hutt Recreation Ground this week where he found comfort in familiar surrounds.
The 33-year-old former All Black has had a fair bit to take in these past few weeks after completing his return to New Zealand rugby.
Time hasn't exactly stood still since the former Petone lock packed his bags for France in 2009.
Down south, where Filipo's wife Louise is from, the former Crusader was met with the sight of an empty lot where the family home once stood.
That dream was bent, buckled and subsequently bulldozed as a result of last year's earthquakes.
No surprise it took Filipo a few weeks to get his bearings after deciding to cut short his contract with English club Wasps and bring his young family home.
He accepted an offer from Wellington to kickstart a provincial career that ended after a heartbreaking 7-6 loss to Canterbury in the 2008 NPC final.
But after walking into a dressing room where most of his team-mates were closer to 20 than 30 he admits he wondered if the whole thing was a mistake.
"I knew it would be like that [very young] when I came back, but nothing really prepares you for the first day back in the changing room," he said.
"The first day of camp it hit me and I thought, ‘should I go and sit with the management' . . . it was quite sobering."
Filipo's half joking, his sense of humour is ever-present, but his sense of trepidation was real.
And in that sense, 80 minutes against Manawatu on Wednesday afternoon was therapeutic.
"It's quite funny. I wasn't too sure what my motivations were, but I got out on the pitch today and as soon as they kicked it off the old competitive instincts kicked in," he said after the ITM Cup pre-season match.
"It's really nice to be back actually.
"I didn't think it would happen because when I first left it was with the full intent of not coming back, but after that I think it's been the right choice."
Filipo looks in fantastic physical shape , injury free after 10 months of relative inactivity while he negotiated an early release from Wasps where he was clearly not enjoying his work.
"I personally struggled to adapt to the northern hemisphere game. I found it quite difficult when the game plan was pick and go and our only attacking weapon was looking for the drop goal," he said.
Two years with Bayonne in France was fun, but difficult with two young children, then both under two.
In the end the lure of being closer to family pulled the Filipos home.
"We moved to London and that was good, but we had gotten to the point where we'd been overseas for three years and really wanted to come back home," he said. "Both my wife and I wanted to get the kids closer to home and their grandparents, so that was another big thing."
There were overtures from Canterbury, but after making a verbal agreement with Wellington coach Chris Boyd, Filipo decided to return to his roots.
Filipo's excited about adding to his 49 caps for Wellington, but does he have eyes on a return to Super Rugby next year?
"I'm still a really competitive person. I'm just going to enjoy the season and whatever comes, comes, I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself," he said.
"I feel the game has moved on quite a bit since the last time I was here, so I have to upskill myself again.
"It's a bit faster, but maybe I've got a bit slower."
It's an intelligent answer because recent history hasn't been kind on players returning from Britain.
However, Filipo's style suits the New Zealand game and he plays in a position with little depth right now.
He played 45 times for the Crusaders after heading south as a draft player in 2004 and won titles in 2005, 06 and 08.
With 116 New Zealand first class games under his belt and four tests for the All Blacks there is little doubt Super Rugby coaches will watch his play with considerable interest this season.
The Dominion Post