Shontayne Hape: 'I'm proud of where I come from but life leads you in different directions'

The England centre faces his birth nation for the first time saying there is 'no bigger challenge'
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Shontayne Hape could be forgiven for missing the live coverage of Wayne Shelford's famous All Black Haka before the fire-and-brimstone contest with Ireland at Lansdowne Road a little over two decades ago: for one thing, he was only eight at the time; for another, he was obsessed with a different kind of rugby, having been born into a family of league obsessives. But the footage is there on the internet for everyone to see, and Hape has watched it more than once.

"I think it made the All Blacks angry," said the Auckland-born Englishman yesterday, recalling the decision of the gung-ho Ulster forward Willie Anderson to encroach on the New Zealanders' war dance. "You don't want to be poking the bear, do you? The best thing to do is stand tall, stare them in the eye and show them you respect, and accept, the challenge they're laying down."

Fine words indeed, and Hape will have his chance to live up to them – to walk the walk – at Twickenham this coming weekend when, for the first time, he plays for the country of his choice against the country of his birth. In a previous sporting life, the Bath centre won 14 caps for the Kiwis, New Zealand's international league side.

Now, he has the opportunity to prove that a dyed-in-the-wool 13-a-sider has what it takes to make the grade in what might be called a union-specific role. Wings and full-backs have been surviving and thriving for some time, but for those occupying positions in the thick of the action, the crossover has proved far more challenging.

Hape, who joined Bath after a successful spell in Super League with Bradford Bulls, won his first union caps on last summer's tour of Australia, where most of his family now live. It was not easy for him: in the first Test in Perth, the Wallaby backs ran rings round him – ran rings round everyone in a white shirt, if truth be told – and reduced England to something resembling a rabble. A week later, Hape and his colleagues turned the tables, chiselling out a one-point victory in Sydney that saved an awful lot of skins. Talk about a baptism of fire.

Yes this will be hotter still, and the new midfielder knows it. "I'll be playing against my countrymen, against the No 1 team in the world, against Ma'a Nonu," he said, referring to the uniquely powerful centre whose hard-running style has persuaded the All Black selectors to abandon their time-honoured "five-eighth" arrangement in midfield and go for something more... more English, as it happens. "There is no bigger challenge, and no bigger opportunity. It's the kind of test that gives you a very clear idea of how good you are, of what you can do at this level."

Will he find it awkward, standing on the "wrong" side of the halfway line, watching his fellow New Zealanders waving their arms around and drawing hands across throats in a threatening display of ceremonial communion? Riki Flutey, another inside centre from New Zealand, handled it well enough when he first confronted the All Blacks on behalf of the English, but Flutey was older and probably wiser. Hape, a relatively recent convert to the union game, does not have the same well of experience from which to draw.

"I'm proud of what I am, of where I come from, but life leads people in different directions," he said. "I see this as a special moment in my life, one to be remembered. I still have the New Zealand jersey I wore in my first league international, and I still have the England jersey from the Test in Perth. I'll be keeping this one, too. Definitely."

As expected, his midfield partner on Saturday will be Mike Tindall, who has 61 caps to his name and knows what it is to beat the All Blacks. Hape calls him "His Royal Highness" – more a reference to Tindall's love life, which has long had a blue-blooded dimension to it, than to the aristocratic dash of his rugby. "We built up a good relationship in Australia," Hape said.

If ever there was a time for that relationship to bear fruit, it is now.

Starting on Friday – Toby Flood writes exclusively for 'The Independent'