The entry of the Pacific franchises into the Super Rugby ecosystem generated a lot of expectations in the field of sports and in business…
Sekope Kepu played in 141 games for the Waratahs, including their greatest triumph at Super Rugby level, so you can expect him to carry a fair slab of emotion into his first game against his old club on Saturday.
Kepu, born in Sydney to Tongan parents, will lead out a team representing the heritage of his family as captain of Moana Pasifika at Mt Smart Stadium, a huge honour coming at the tail end of an impressive career that included that 2014 SR title with the Tahs
Moana Pasifika have had a troubled start to life in Super Rugby Pacific – four games moved because of Covid issues and a stretch of six games in 23 days testing their reserves of energy, if not their spirit.
They are a team unlike any other in the history of the competition, bringing players from different nations together with the focus on being trailblazers and an inspiration for their region. There is a lot of singing, a heap of brotherhood, and Kepu’s role in driving this is integral.
He is 36 and his 110 Tests in the furnace of the Wallabies front row give him the gravitas to lead.
“It’s about finding your process, your true north, try not to get too rattled and stay composed in the heat of battle,” is how Kepu summed up his approach to The Roar Rugby Podcast last week.
“The unique thing is we’re not a franchise like a city or a state, we’re represent our people and that’s not only in Auckland and in the islands but everywhere around the globe.
“It’s quite humbling to get some messages from people from the UK, Europe, the States, Australia and everywhere.
“Just people proud of what we’re doing and who want to get behind the team values and they’re seeing what we’re trying to do and are extremely proud.”
Although a seemingly obvious choice as captain, Kepu suggests he was taken aback when the offer arrived.
“It’s a very unique team and I didn’t really know the impact that it would have not only on myself but my family and also the greater Pacific Island community.
“When I was selected as captain that was just really humbling and something I didn’t see coming and something I am still learning and trying to run with.
“Being in a position to help put in structure values and standards and building it from the ground up has been something pretty special and it’s been a learning for everybody.
“We speak about it as our team is more than rugby – it’s reaching out and inspiring the next generation of young kids that want to be like this team.”
The Tahs are, of course, aware of what Kepu will bring to the homecoming party in Auckland on Saturday.
“If he gets dominance early, he is pretty much impossible to stop,” said Tahs hooker Dave Porecki, a former teammate of Kepu’s at London Irish.
“He’s a very strong tight-head scrummager so if you nullify him early – that’s for [Angus Bell] and myself to do early – you can discourage him from being so dominant throughout the game.”
The Tahs are coming into the game after an upset over the Crusaders. While coach Darren Coleman suggests this task will be even harder, thanks to a vocal ‘home’ crowd, he also knows a win will help push their cause for a top four finish.
Kepu is an imposing barrier in a team of physical bruisers – and Porecki ruled out trying any tricks on the old dog.
“I think he’s too experienced for someone like me to rattle him,” Porecki said.
Kepu is only four years younger than coach Aaron Mauger, a teammate of Kepu’s brother in their school boy days.
Mauger has praised Kepu for his leadership and says his form is resurgent due to the responsibility he’s taken on.
“He’s going really well, Sekope, and we’re really lucky to have a man of his quality,” Mauger said on SENZ radio this week.
“Firstly, as a man and the influence he has on the growth of our young players. Not just as footy players, but helping them on (their) life journey.
“He’s well supported by Christian (Lealiifano), Jack (Lam), Tomasi (Alosio), Ere Enari … the more experienced guys that are part of our leadership group. Just quality men, I love working with these boys, and I love working with Keps.
“He makes it fun, we’ve got a good relationship. We’re really aligned and he’s been huge for this team.
“He’s in good form, and to see him back at his best probably just shows how much he’s enjoying his rugby as well.”
The feeling is clearly mutual.
“Aaron’s awesome,” Kepu told The Roar. “He’s someone that I grew up watching – he played the same position as my older brother and the same NZ representative teams and I respect and look up to my older brother as well.
“It is a relationship where he runs things by not only by myself but the leadership and there is a lot of to and fro about what we think would be best for the team – but also he ultimately makes the final calls.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with him so far and being able to just talk to him.
“In Queenstown, when we were in isolation there, I just picked up the phone and rung him and said ‘how you going bro?’, just check in and maybe it wasn’t even footy but every now again a random text or phone call to check up on each other.”
It won’t come as a surprise that Kepu fancies extending his career beyond the field and into the coach’s box.
There was a moment earlier this season when he was injured and consigned to the stands, and his reactions ran the full range of emotions.
“I have a passion for coaching,” he told The Roar.
“I guess it’s a little bit as you get older you trying to share your knowledge with other younger players. The beauty is in this team I can do that.
“Yeah, I saw that footage and thought ‘I’m a passionate guy!'”