Carter's exit gives restored Weepu his head
EDDIE BUTLERon the rehabilitation of a player once known for being lippy, bolshie and boozy and now finally a key man for the Kiwis
DOWN AT the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, within the city limits of Lower Hutt and the boundary of Greater Wellington, is the small town of Wainuiomata. It is the home town of the All Blacks scrumhalf and the two are alike: little and tough. If you’ve ever wondered, by the way, about the name, Piri Weepu is of Maori and Niuean descent, Niue being 100 square miles of raised coral atoll in the South Pacific, 1,500 miles north-east of New Zealand.
Despite being where the former All Blacks Tana Umaga and Neemia Tialata come from, Wainuiomata is a rugby league town. Piri’s brother Billy played for the Manly Sea Eagles in the mid-1990s and their mum, Kura, coached the Wainuiomata League under-sevens.
In fact, she had Piri in her team and gave one of the greatest quotes ever delivered by a mother about a son: “He was a prick to coach.”
When Piri at the age of 14 told the family he was off to join the Hurricanes academy, they had to ask: “Who are they?” Kura is now a security officer in the players’ tunnel at the Wellington Regional Stadium – the Cake Tin – and was the first to embrace her boy as he came off the field after the New Zealand-Canada game.
Billy was known as one of the heaviest props ever to play rugby league in Australia, which brings us to the subject of Piri’s weight, where perhaps we should let his mother speak again: “He was our runt; now he can’t keep the pounds off.”
In 2007, three years after he was first capped, Piri was the only player in an All Blacks reconditioning camp to lose weight, an indication his body mass was due to fat not muscle. And that was just his anatomy. Upstairs he was difficult too.
He did not go to the 2007 World Cup in France because he was a walking disciplinary nightmare: lippy, bolshie and boozy. He was toying with going to league and did not answer phone calls from the management of the All Blacks when they returned and wanted to know what he was up to. Could they consider him? Piri let it be known he was sorting himself out and would let them know when he was ready.
If he comes over as an awkward customer, then that is exactly what he is. He is the player who wants to do everything, take the floor and pull the strings and run the show. He was never really going to be the scrumhalf to partner Dan Carter at the World Cup because the field wasn’t big enough for the two of them.
Given the choice between the little volcano and the ice-cold computer that is Carter, there was only one answer. Carter played and Piri was put on the bench, if he was put anywhere at all. Being left out in the past had almost been better, because he did not make a good sub.
There is an art to being a replacement, being externally nothing but supportive and inwardly seething, and Piri never quite mastered the art of concealing his resentment.
At this World Cup, however, it seemed he had already come to terms with his lot. That he might have to be patient. Perhaps he was a little wiser after dislocating and breaking his ankle last October, playing for Wellington against Taranaki.
Perhaps sitting around and pondering cruel fate, he acknowledged that if he was just an injury away from missing out then perhaps others were too.
Just for once he took his medicine, went through rehab, lost the stone he had put on while in plaster, took on board that his recovery would be judged only by him responding positively to his treatment. He bit his tongue and waited.
And then Carter collapsed. And the challenge was laid down in the All Black camp, that one player’s misfortune had to become another’s opportunity. They tried to be calm about it and managed to keep the tremor out of their voice when they said the team would have to improve across the board. But there was panic across the nation. An appeal was launched, almost a cry of despair: who will be the one to save us? Piri bloody Weepu, that’s who.
What a week he had. First, he played a one-man emergency service, responding to the alarm - All Blacks in trouble. He dashed down to the bar on North Shore and unceremoniously yanked Israel Dagg and Cory Jane back to the hotel.
Then he took to the field against Argentina at Eden Park and led the haka. Kicked the penalties that kept the All Blacks clear of danger. Provided the service that nursed Aaron Cruden into the game after Colin Slade went off injured. He took the restarts, he wagged his finger at the forwards and added a spice of invention that lit up the team performance, kicking across field or dinking the ball into space. He offered variety and intelligence. He wasn’t Dan Carter; he was himself.
He did all of this unaware that two days before, his grandfather had died. As the team celebrated the win, his father, Bill, rang to tell him. On Tuesday Piri flew home to carry his grandfather’s coffin at the funeral. Bill spoke of how proud grandfather had been of grandson.
The family may be prouder still. Over the next couple of Sundays, the younger brother might suggest that Billy switches over once the league is finished on the television, because little Piri is going to win the World Cup for the All Blacks.
PIRI WEEPU: Highs and lows
PIRI WEEPU has played in 53 of New Zealand’s 91 games since his debut in November 2004 but has endured four long spells in the wilderness.
Nov 2004-Aug 2005
Still trying to establish himself, he plays against the touring Lions twice but on neither occasion as an All Black – once for Wellington and also for New Zealand Maori.
July 2007-Aug 2008
Says he is “emotional” and “annoyed” after a shock omission from New Zealand’s World Cup squad, the week after he was one of six players fined £200 each for staying out drinking after curfew. Graham Henry insisted the disciplinary problem had nothing to do with his decision. “Piri has not played particularly well in the Tri-Nations,” the coach said.
Aug 2009-June 2010
Weepu, having decided against a mooted switch to rugby league and established himself in the squad, is ruled out of the autumn Tri-Nations fixtures and a tour of the Northern Hemisphere with an ankle injury.
Oct 2010-July 2011-10-12
Returns to the squad in June – “You always have to chase the dream and the dream is to make the World Cup squad,” he says – and plays nine successive games before breaking a leg playing for Wellington against Taranaki. He misses another Northern Hemisphere tour, returning to the side this July.