No bet a safe bet for thankful Willie Ripia

SECOND CHANCE: Willie Ripia  is determined to make the most of this sporting lifeline thrown to him by Jamie Joseph.
SECOND CHANCE: Willie Ripia is determined to make the most of this sporting lifeline thrown to him by Jamie Joseph.

A troubled rugby player realises the Maori All Blacks are taking a gamble, but he's determined to make it pay off, writes Marc Hinton. 

On the biggest day of the year for gambling, spare a thought for Willie Ripia who is doing his level best to think of anything but who's going to win the 3 o'clock at Flemington today.

It will help that when the race that stops two nations takes place in Melbourne today, Ripia will be at Auckland's Orakei Marae with his New Zealand Maori team-mates for a poroporoaki (farewell) hosted by Ngati Whatua.

Temptation will be well and truly out of harm's way.

Ripia is battling a gambling addiction that has left his rugby career in tatters, a stint with the Western Force in Perth this year ending in disgrace after he was at the centre of allegations involving theft from the dressing-room.

The 27-year-old subsequently returned to live in Rotorua with his family and has confronted his addiction, undertaking counselling to help him deal with a problem that's been with him his entire professional career.

After dipping his toes back in the rugby waters with the Bay of Plenty development team, Ripia was handed another chance when Jamie Joseph selected him for the three-match tour of England.

They fly out tonight, with Ripia understanding he has a lot to prove to everyone, including to himself.

Ripia spoke to the media yesterday for the first time since his dramatic callup - a selection the former Hurricanes and Taranaki playmaker admits is a "risk" but one he regards as a potential career lifeline.

The former age-grade star, who has played twice previously for the Maori, said a day like today when everybody is talking about having a bet would be tough for him. "There's a trigger," he said of his addiction. "I've always wanted to go to the Melbourne Cup and punt. It's the Melbourne Cup . . . but I'm not going to focus on that. I have to focus on New Zealand Maori rugby and what I can do to help this team win three games." Battling the demons, he said, remained a daily battle.

"It's always going to be an issue. You can't just say: OK I've stopped. You have to change the way you do things. So far it's been amazing . . . but it's going to be with me for the rest of my life. It sounds real stink, but that's life."

It's a mark of how far Ripia has come in a short time that, as soon as he joined the Maori on Saturday in Auckland, he asked to address the team.

"It was daunting sitting in the room in my own zone," he said.

"I have to earn their trust because trust is huge and without trust in a team, you're not going to get anywhere.

"It's something I'll have to drive, and have to continually drive. They're a great bunch of blokes and so far it's been good but it's only a couple of days."

Ripia thought this day might have been beyond him - "I'd given up playing sport again and putting myself out there" - and that his only option might have been to "just run away".

"But I had a bit of a kick up the bum from a few people saying: hey get out there, it's something you're good at and passionate about."

The Maori team was the perfect vehicle for him to return, he said, though where this "huge blessing" would lead was up in the air.

Someone asked if he considered himself a poster boy for gambling addiction reform in professional sport.

"That's not my intention," he responded.

"My intention is to get out there and play footy, and do things for my family. At this stage I have to do something with my life before I become a poster boy for anything.

"It's a huge illness and disease and it doesn't get touched on as much as it should."

So, did he have more to prove as a footy player or as a person?

"Both," he said. "People are going to see more of me on the field and I have to be good because people will want to take shots at me. Off the field I have to try as best as I can to be squeaky clean."

One day at a time.