CASTRES, FRANCE – Former All Black Piri Weepu has put professional concerns on the backburner for the moment as he concentrates on finding a way to enjoy his rugby again.
The 32-year-old half-back has yet to make his debut with amateur side Saint-Sulpice-sur-Tarn, who play in the sixth tier of French rugby.
He arrived at the small-town club in February, after a brief but troubled spell at Oyonnax, but he has yet to flick out a trademark pass in anger as his registration remains tied up in frustrating French red tape. Two games have gone by as the process grinds forward at a glacial pace. The club’s next game is in April.
“I’m looking forward to having a chance to run around,” Weepu said, two days before bureaucracy thwarted his first attempt to play for his new club at the last minute. “It has been a while. I know the lungs are going to burn, but that’s where you start off – you have that first run and get that feeling back in the body and crack on with things.
“I just want to feel like I want to be involved with a club again. That’s the main thing.”
An old friend played a major role in his decision to team up with the team from the town of just 8,500 people – who have already taken the New Zealander into their hearts: “Sitiveni Sivivatu plays for Castres, which is close by. He has a contact here – and I needed to play some rugby and start training because I’ve been doing nothing for maybe two and a half months, through injury and my contract being terminated at Oyonnax.”
Weepu refused to speak about his spell at the French Top 14 strugglers, which – officially – ended in ‘an amicable separation between both parties’ in January.
But his time there was dogged by injury and overshadowed by allegations concerning his behaviour. It was reported in local media that a bust-up with coach Johann Authier was the final straw.
He is adamant that he is now only looking forward: “I guess for me, it’s just about working really hard now that I’m here. Everyone has been really helpful here, which I appreciate. I am still carrying a little niggly injury, but I’m able to run around freely, so there’s nothing major that I can’t take care of myself.”
After a less-than successful period that featured a spell in the English Premiership, first with London Welsh then Wasps, before his move to France, Weepu remains open to another shot at rugby in Europe – and would not instantly reject an approach from an ambitious pro club out of the top flight. He said: “ProD2 could be an option. I’m just waiting to see what happens. I know there are a couple of months left in the season, so I guess it’s just wait and see. I rather be here rather than going back home and trying again.”
By his own admission, Weepu has struggled to adapt to the French rugby style. “A few times I found myself going into a ruck and you’re not supposed to as a half-back here. In the southern hemisphere, you just dive in – you’ve got to otherwise you lose an opportunity for someone else in your team.
“Super Rugby is fast-flowing and you’re basically just trying to score tries. You’re not trying to keep the ball in the scrum for a penalty here or there. You’re trying to create opportunities off the set piece and manipulate the back line.
“Here, it’s totally different. You’ve got guys who know their job in terms of going into dark holes and doing the tough jobs.
In southern hemisphere rugby, everyone does that, even the backs. They’re required to do it. Here, backs just want to carry the ball – they don’t want to get into the dark holes or put their shoulder into a ruck.”
Bureaucracy and getting to grips with the game in France are not the only problems Weepu faces: “Not many of my team-mates at Saint-Sulpice speak English. So I’m trying to get by with a couple of words. I still remember a few words from when I was at Oyonnax, rugby terms, so I know how to say ‘Push!’, or how to tell them to go ‘left’, or ‘right.’
“The language barrier – trying to speak to some of the French boys – is the biggest thing. But think they know they type of person I am because I’m being a cheeky bugger on the training pitch, trying to foot-trip people.
“I hope they understand it’s a bit of fun to break up training.”
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