My Big Friendly Giant, Keen To Go Out On A High
Photo: SPA Images
Tomorrow night sees the NSW Waratahs take on the Highlanders in a Super Rugby semi-final shoot-out for a place in this year’s Grand Final. A special group of players under a special coach and his staff, have the chance to make history as the first New South Wales team to make back-to-back finals and with it, a chance to defend the precious title they so richly deserved 12 months ago.
For some, it will be the last time they grace Allianz Stadium in the famous Cambridge Blue. A win will take the Tahs to Wellington or, if the Brumbies can overcome fatigue, jetlag and a rampant Hurricanes on their own turf, maybe even back to ANZ Stadium, the scene of last year’s memorable triumph.
Defeat will bring with it the end of an era as head coach Michael Cheika and several high profile players depart for pastures new. And with that in mind, I grabbed a chat with one of those exiting stars this week to reflect on the season so far, and the challenge ahead.
But before we hear his thoughts, I’d like to tell you a little side story about my first encounter with this very special fella…
Many moons ago, seven years to be precise, I’d never actually written a sports article in my life, well, not for public consumption anyway. For any of you who have perhaps read some of my stuff over the last few years, that may not come as much of a surprise! But anyway, back in 2008 I was happily enjoying the game of rugby from a supporter’s perspective as a ‘Blue Blood’ season ticket holder at the Waratahs.
Back then, having Foxtel at home was a luxurious pipe dream. So in order to get my Super Rugby fix on a Friday night, I used to rush out of work in time to catch a train from one side of the Harbour Bridge to the other, and head straight to a local pub for the 5.35pm kick-off from New Zealand on the big screen.
One particular night, May 16th 2008 to be exact, I rolled into the usual haunt to watch a game between the Blues and Hurricanes from Eden Park. The game was pivotal because it was the last round of the regular season, and the result would impact on the make-up of the finals series for which the Waratahs would qualify the following evening with a derby win over the Reds.
For some bizarre reason, I chose to don a Waratahs jersey that day. Not enough that I wore it on game day obviously, I was hooked to the point that I made sure everyone knew which team I followed, even if they weren’t actually playing. But it turned out to be one of the best sartorial decisions of my life.
Also parked in front of the big screen that night to catch the action was a 22-year-old of Tongan descent, who was actually born in Sydney and raised in Auckland, before returning to his birthplace to fulfil his destiny. But I was embarassingly ignorant of all that when he came over to speak to me at full-time.
“So, you’re a Tahs fan eh?” asked the genial giant Polynesian now standing before me.
“Yeah, I’m a season ticket holder,” I replied, slightly nervous that he was a Blues/Hurricanes fan that had taken offence to my seemingly unnecessary display of patronage.
“How do you think they’re going this year?” he continued, a rookie error on his part to be fair, as I need no prompting when it comes to waffling about rugby or the Tahs, even less so when fuelled by six schooners of amber nectar.
Fifteen minutes later, I finally took a breath while he silently berated himself for leaving his table. But he was stuck with me now.
“I thought they went ok in South Africa recently,” I continued, commenting on the recent two-match tour that had seen the Tahs lose narrowly to the Bulls in Pretoria, before gaining a hard-earned draw with the Stormers in Cape Town. “But they made some basic errors at times, and just got outmuscled at the breakdown,” I added, pretending I knew what I was talking about – something I’ve become accustomed to in recent years.
“Yeah, that Bulls match was a hard one,” my new acquaintance agreed, “The boys were talking at training and said it was really physical out there, they were sore for days afterwards.”
Cue an initially confused, but then increasingly horrified look across my face.
The terrible realisation that I was a Waratahs season ticket holder, now actually talking to a Waratahs player, and not recognising him, was one that will haunt me forever.
“I’m Sekope Kepu,” he said, “Pleased to meet you.”
In mitigation, ‘Keps’ – as I now know him – had only played three times off the bench for the Waratahs that year in what was his debut season. And while his profile picture in the match program depicted a guy with a Tatafu Polota-Nau-style afro and beard, the version standing before me was now clean shaven and shorn of his locks.
With apologies for my ignorance duly offered and humbly accepted, Keps hung around and talked footy to both myself – and my poor wife who was playing taxi on my behalf – for some 45 minutes, posed for a photo, and was an absolute star.
I tell this tale, not only to embarrass myself obviously, but also to give some insight into just what sort of a guy that New South Wales – and Australia – will be losing when he packs his bags for France after the World Cup. Not only a world class player, but also a first class human being.
Since that night, the quietly spoken 6ft 2in and 125kg prop has not only gone on to cement himself as a permanent fixture in the New South Wales front-row – capped over 80 times for his state – but also don the green and gold of his country on 52 occasions and counting. And after that chance meeting, he also cemented himself as my – and my wife’s (and she doesn’t even like rugby) – favourite Waratah.
Having intently followed his progress over the last seven years, through his appearances for Randwick in the Shute Shield, his increasing game time off the bench for the Tahs, replacing the retired Al Baxter as the no.1 tighthead for NSW, and then onto the Wallabies, World Cups and a Super Rugby title, it is somewhat bizarre to now find him on the other end of my phone line as the subject of an article I’m writing.
It isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed him. Having sat at every Tahs home game for six years from 2005, and trawled my way around the club rugby grounds of Sydney to feed my appetite for live rugby since 2007, a serendipitous twist of fate led to an opportunity to actually write about the game I love, and I gleefully picked up the ball and have been running with it ever since.
As a result, he and I have stayed in touch, me following his seismic progress and offering messages of support or commiseration where applicable, he – to an understandably much, much lesser extent – following mine with the written word, always with a genuine level of interest and thought.
After seven years of blood, sweat and tears for him on the field as a Waratahs player, and 10 years of joy, frustration and beers for me as a supporter/weekend journo off it, getting to share the emotion of last season’s landmark Super Rugby title win with him after the game, was a genuinely unforgettable moment that I will always treasure.
And now here we are, two people whose lives have changed irreparably in our own way since that first meeting. But both still wanting the same result tomorrow night…
So, why were you there that night in the pub anyway?
SK: “I didn’t have Foxtel either and at the time, we only lived five minutes away and I said to my wife ‘Let’s go and have a steak and watch the footy.’”
What made you come over to talk to me?
“There were a few kiwis in there and I remember everybody was going for one or more of the New Zealand teams. But you were the only one with a Tahs jersey and I thought, ‘There’s a mad fan sitting amongst everybody, he’s pretty brave! You’re also in the middle of a rugby league area down there, so I was just surprised to see a Tahs fan and I thought I’d come over and say hello and have a chat.”
Well, I’m very glad you did! You were a promising 22-year-old ready to take on the world at the time, but from memory, still a little bit unsure if you actually had what it took to reach the top. Could you have imagined then that seven years later you would go on to win a Super Rugby title, play for your state 80 times, and rack up a half century of caps for the Wallabies?
“Not at all! At the time I was still fresh and young and I was just happy to play Super Rugby, that was my ultimate dream as a young kid, to play rugby professionally. For me, getting those three caps for the Tahs that year was pretty special, and never in my wildest dreams did I think that a few months later I was going to tour Europe with the Wallabies. Seven years on, a lot has happened and a lot has changed and I’m just very grateful.”
You’ve got a huge clash coming up on Saturday night against the Highlanders, and a chance to put yourselves in the frame to make history. How has the preparation been over the last fortnight since the Reds game?
“Last week was really good. The weekend off was nice and then we’ve had a chance to work on some stuff but also freshen up a bit as well – it’s been very similar to what we did last year. We had Monday off but we trained Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, did some work on our lineout and our set-piece, and just tidied a few things up a bit.”
Has training been geared towards the Highlanders?
“Not really. Obviously, it wasn’t until this week that we got stuck into the detail around them, but I think that regardless of who the opposition was going to be, we needed that week off because we worked hard to get it and it had been a long 10 weeks straight that we’d played since the bye.”
Did you watch their game against the Chiefs?
“I watched a little bit of it. They’ve got some x-factor, there’s no shortage of that, and we’ve just got to play our game and try and stop guys like Aaron Smith and [Waisake] Naholo, [Malakai] Fekitoa in the centres, or Ben Smith out the back.”
They came out on top in an end-to-end encounter in Dunedin earlier in the year. What did you learn from playing them that night?
“That was kind of a turning point in our season in terms of trying to get back that urgency and that hunger to work hard. Turnovers are crucial and they’re a dangerous attacking team, and if you knock off like we did that night and stop chasing every lost cause, they can tear you apart.
“What we learned from that game is that if we do turnover ball, we have to work hard to get back and re-connect and get that defensive line set. We’ll take things from it but they’ve evolved as a team since then as well. The biggest thing is more so worrying about what we want to do and focusing on our game.”
It’s been a funny old year for the Tahs. There’s been the highs of beating the Hurricanes and the Crusaders, and both the Brumbies and Reds home and away. But also the two losses to the Force, and then the Stormers at home. You’ve shown the form of champions on occasion but not every week – is that fair?
“Yes, and that’s been the challenge that we’ve faced every week, trying to maintain that consistency and it’s something we’re still working on and trying to build as a team. If we can just keep practicing and not be bored with doing the same things and going through the same routines each week, that will eventually turn us into a true champion team and that’s the ultimate goal this year, to go the distance. It’s exciting and we’re all looking forward to the challenge.”
When you look at the results and the performances this season, it would appear that the team has produced its absolute best when it has had to, and against the very best opponents. Does that hold you in good stead for the finals?
“It’s interesting you say that because we haven’t really thought about it like that, or I know I personally haven’t thought about it like that. Our preparation for this game has been good because we’ve had two weeks to prepare and get some work done and knock over some things that we needed to improve on. Now it’s finals footy and there’s no second chance so we’ll be raising the bar and giving it everything this week. It’s do or die, the Highlanders are a great team and they’ve got threats all across the park so we’re really looking forward to that.”
Has it been a harder slog this year being champions?
“I think so. But I also think there were some wins during the season where we were very hard on ourselves, and a bit down because we’d had those wins last year by 20 or 30 points. We left last year where it was and tried to start with a clean slate, but while we have that approach in our minds, other teams don’t and we’ve had a target on our back.
“There have been some testing times, and it’s been credit to the boys and the character that we’ve built over the years and the trust we have in each other that we managed to get the wins we did, because without that, it wouldn’t have happened. It has been a tough slog with the draw as well but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ve learned to deal with it and we’ve worked around it, and I don’t think we could have done a better job.”
How much of a motivating factor is knowing what it feels like to be champions, and knowing what it took to get there and not wanting to relinquish that trophy?
“You look back and you savour those moments and the feeling was indescribable, the satisfaction you took from knowing what you’d done. You cling to those moments and of course, you want that feeling again and that can be a driving force as well this weekend. But for me personally, the only focus this week is to play the best footy that I can and do my part.
“If we can all do that, we’ll come up trumps. If we’re good enough, we’ll win, and if we’re not and we fall short and someone misses their detail, then it’s not going to be good enough because it’s finals football and they’re a good team.”
I wish you the very best of luck mate, go well.
“Thanks mate, much appreciated. Talk soon.”
And there he goes. As humble, polite and gracious off the field as he is skilful, powerful and explosive on it. The Waratahs are going to have some mighty large shoes to fill next season when he heads to Bordeaux Begles to play in the Top 14. My big friendly giant will be sorely missed.
He’s one of a kind that Sekope Kepu, especially when you recognise him…
First published by Rugby News on: June 26th, 2015