Weepu stays focused amid pain and tears

All Blacks' No 9 puts injury and tragedy behind him to fill playmaker's role

Hugh Godwin@HughGodwin_
Wednesday 02 November 2011 17:51

A year ago today, Piri Weepu was playing for his province, Wellington, when he jammed a foot into the turf while brushing off an innocuous tackle. With a twist and a crunch and a snap familiar to England's Danny Cipriani and Olly Barkley – who have suffered the same fate – Weepu broke and dislocated his right ankle. Today he will stand proud and ready as the man charged by the All Blacks' head coach Graham Henry with "the navigating of the team" into the World Cup final.

What a difference 12 months can make – although Weepu's eyeballs-out conducting of the pre-match haka conceals more trauma than even that testing period of recovery and retrieval of his place in the New Zealand side. His has been a fight over all kinds of setbacks.

He was omitted from the last World Cup in 2007 a few weeks after being fined by the All Blacks for being out drinking beyond a 4am curfew; there was an arrest for being rowdy outside a fast-food shop; then, during the current tournament, Weepu was obliged to keep both the peace – persuading younger team-mates Israel Dagg and Cory Jane to leave a bar – and pay his last respects at the funeral of his grandfather.

As scrum-half, playmaker and goal-kicker – his seven penalties helped the All Blacks past Argentina in last Sunday's quarter-final to face Australia in today's semi-final – Weepu is an unlikely inheritor of the injured hero Dan Carter's role leading the backline.

The Maori and Niue-descended No 9 has always battled the perception that he was happy at the well-fed end of the fitness scale. His kicking success for this World Cup is 92 per cent, but is he 100 per cent fit? "Aw, jeez, I don't think I'm that far off," he says. "It has been tough to go from where I was last year to where I am now but I think it's a huge improvement. I didn't think I was going to be back in the team. There's all the hard work I've been doing with Gilly [fitness coach Nic Gill] in the background and obviously our nutritionist has been keeping a close eye on what I've been putting in my mouth."

Two days before Weepu fell one penalty short of the all-time World Cup record against the Pumas, his 78-year-old grandfather passed away from pneumonia. The news was kept from Weepu until a phone call from his father an hour after the 33-10 win; the funeral in Wainuiomata near Wellington, with Weepu as a pallbearer, followed last Tuesday.

He and his team mates also visited Christchurch in the aftermath of the earthquake there. Yet after these extraordinary events, it will be Weepu's unfussy runs and appreciation of when to kick, pass or simply back up his forwards that will count most at Eden Park – where Australia have not won since 1986 and New Zealand have not lost since 1994 – just for today.

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