The All Black whose heart remains in the valley

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PETONE, New Zealand — Even after he had been selected for the All Blacks, Piri Weepu would play for the Hurricanes on Saturdays and then on Sundays, using his middle name, would run out for the Wainuiomata Lions rugby league club. Fourteen years on, and the Rugby World Cup-winner still feels most comfortable there, surrounded by devotees of the 13-man code, in his community.

“I used to play with my old mates,” Piri tells ESPN. “We always used to figure out who was going to be there, and trying to work out whether the media would be there. Sometimes I’d put head gear on, or cover my face in mud right from the get go.”

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But then he started to worry what would happen if Graham Henry found out. “I remember reading a few articles about when Jerry [Collins] got caught. He played against Wainui and my dad, being him, knew who he was but kept quiet.

“Jerry was just having fun. Every opportunity I’d want to go and play club rugby; even when we had the weekend off, I’d want to play grassroots rugby. It’s where it began for me.”

In the basin between the Eastern Hutt Hills and the Orongorongos lies Wainuiomata, an area given the nickname ‘Nappy Valley’ during the 1950s when a number of young families moved into the new housing that was springing up. A community was formed, with the league club at the heart of it.

Piri would spend his childhood traipsing in and out of the clubhouse, as his parents, Kura and Bill, worked tirelessly to keep it running smoothly. He used to stay around until nightfall, when he walked over the road to his aunties, staying close to family and his comfort zone.

The league players were his heroes. He grew up idolising Andrew Johns and Alfie Langer; he used to watch Wainui’s local stars Yogi Rogers, the Lomax brothers John and David and one Tana Umaga, and dream of pulling on the green and black shirt.

He remembers Wainui’s three-year title run from 1989 to 1992, and Ken Laban, and when they used to go up and “smack the Aucklanders” in the Bartercard Cup when he was ball boy. And then there is his older brother Billy who went on to play for Manly. The list goes on.

Even when he was picked by the All Blacks and asked whether this was a dream come true, he gave the sacrilegious answer that he had grown up wanting to play for the Kiwis. He had interest from the Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos and Canterbury Bulldogs but the Hurricanes’ presence put them off. The free spirit in Piri meant he went with the flow, he only played rugby because he loved it, but his heart was in league.

“Although I’ve been playing rugby over the years, I’d always come back to the league club. It’s my comfort zone really. After games with the boys I always found myself wanting to be back at the league club.

“Rugby? It was fun. I was just lucky enough to get paid for it. I didn’t enjoy the early morning sessions, I wasn’t getting paid at the time so I was thinking of just going to get a job instead. That was me at the time but now, looking back, maybe I should have gone to more early morning sessions. It was me trying to develop.”

But his home was always in the valley. He lived with his parents while at the Hurricanes, despite having bought a house in Alicetown; his mother even worked as security on the players’ tunnel at the Westpac Stadium. Her identity stayed under wraps and his teammates only found out the significance of who she was when he left the club.

Weepu often led the haka during his 71-cap All Blacks career, including before the 2011 World Cup final. Stu Forster/Getty Images

Piri was nervous only twice before rugby games. The first was in 2010, when he had the kicking duties against the Wallabies with Dan Carter sidelined. “The day before I was kicking like an absolute t—, I kicked two out of 20,” Piri remembers. “I went and spoke to Smithy about it, but he put it into perspective and it shut me up. He got me with that one.

“I kicked seven from seven, or something. I was so buggered after that. It was about the 60th minute where I was telling the bench ‘I’m f—– get me off’ but they kept on saying, ‘five more minutes!’ So I’d play more. I played 78 minutes, I couldn’t run or do anything.”

The second was before the 2011 World Cup final.

He was always a slightly reluctant All Black, his heart was with league, but one thing captured his imagination growing up: the haka. At Te Aute College he always wanted to captain the first XV so he could lead the haka; it was an honour he had with the All Blacks. When he was eventually given the nod, mischief didn’t escape him.

“I guess I enjoyed it when I had the opportunity. On the odd occasion I wish that I could’ve been the ugly guy in the front, rather than leading it, I asked Kevvie or Richie to lead it as I wanted a change,” Piri says.

“I had some great ideas when Rico was leading the haka and I used to tell him to do certain things, and used to jot things down. But he said ‘I’d get in trouble’, and I said: ‘who cares? We’re meant to be expressing ourselves!’ I still look back on it today.”

The 2011 World Cup was a remarkable time for Piri. He was the man harbouring the country’s hopes after their litany of fly-half injuries. T-shirts were sold reading ‘Keep Calm — Piri’s On’. But it didn’t throw him off.

“I knew I had to do my job; it was just being a soldier and focusing on the collective,” he says, but the morning of the World Cup final did cause him angst. “It was a f—— age just to get to the game. From game day to what time kick off was, it took so long. It was doing my head in.”

Weepu delivers a pass at full stretch during the 2011 World Cup final. Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Weepu would last 49 minutes before going off injured, but the All Blacks would go on to win 8-7.

It is midmorning in Beanie café in Petone, 10 minutes’ drive from Wainuimata. Piri sinks a flat white; streaks of grey run through his tied back hair, while he links his fingers thoughtfully, displaying tattoos of two of his children’s names. He is assessing the next stage in life, with him having signed his final playing contract with Wairarapa Bush.

Since the World Cup in 2011 he has lived a nomadic existence. He got a touch with his own mortality in 2014 when scans detected that he had suffered a minor stroke, and the offers from clubs in this part of the world dried up. London Welsh came calling later that year, but he would play 12 games there before moving to Wasps on a short-term contract.

Oyonnax snapped him up a year later, but that ended prematurely and damages from the French courts followed. He went and trained with sixth-tier French division club Saint Sulpice, and then spent time with Narbonne in 2016 before taking the long road home to a valley lying 30 kilometres outside of Wellington.

His focus is now on ensuring the next generation stay in the valley. His memories of when the Risdon brothers left still cut deep. “When we see the kids leaving the valley for the club over the hill, it was a bit like a slap in the face.”

Our conversation is only halted once while we talk, as someone wanted Piri to pass on his best to fellow Wainui son Neemia Tialata, who Piri used to play basketball with before they played rugby. He tells few people he’s an All Black, he was never one to really stick to the status quo.

He has one more year in the Heartland Championship with Wairarapa. But expect to see him running around on the fields of Wainuiomata, inspiring the next generation. They will know him as Kura and Bill’s son, Piri, rather than Piri Weepu the All Black.

“I always play being an All Black down. I don’t talk much about it. I don’t know why… I was so honoured and privileged to be within that group and to earn the jersey, but I never really speak about it. It’s only when people ask me about it. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to blow wind up my bum… I just want to leave it as it is.”

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