Rugby: Ripia return on the cards

By Kelly Exelby

Bay of Plenty are not actively pursuing discredited rugby star Willie Ripia, although the former New Zealand Maori and age-group international did figure in their plans earlier in the year.

Ripia is reportedly eyeing a comeback to rugby this year, with the first-five telling friends he was deciding whether to return to action in the ITM Cup, four months after he was allegedly caught stealing from his teammates at the Western Force Super Rugby team in Perth.

Ripia has been living in Rotorua, receiving counselling for gambling addiction since then.

Asked if he was playing any "code" he Tweeted: "Nah no code. Mixed thoughts at the mo. Maybe soon? Maybe never? maybe in nz/oz or further? Just dont know? Haha." He said a decision was needed by the end of the month on ITM Cup prospects.

Ripia has been living with his Rotorua parents since quitting Super Rugby on the eve of the new season, after he was confronted with footage showing him stealing money from teammates.

New Bay of Plenty Steamers head coach Kevin Schuler said he spoke with Ripia soon after he returned to Rotorua at the start of the year but hasn't heard anything about the 26-year-old's possible return to provincial rugby.

"We heard he was back and really only contacted him, I guess, to offer our support. I had a quick catch-up but he was wanting his own space and I haven't had any communication with him since.

"It'd be great news for the ITM Cup if someone like him was interested again and he's a talented footie player so it would be good to see him back in the game.

"Maybe it's time to get on the phone again and keep those channels of communication open."

The former Taranaki, Hurricanes and New Zealand Maori first-five was allegedly caught on CCTV taking money from players' wallets and bags at the Western Force's Perth headquarters after complaints were made to management previously about money being stolen.

There had been rumours earlier in the season that Ripia was set to turn out in the Baywide club rugby competition with Rotorua side Whakarewarewa, the team his brother Tyson plays for.

Schuler said there weren't desperate for first-fives, despite utility Dan Waenga's return to the Hawke's Bay, with Chris Noakes and Nick McCashin both contracted to the Steamers for the upcoming ITM Cup.

"There's two key guys signed for us but you wouldn't expect a guy like Willie to be sitting on the bench at ITM Cup level should he decide to play.

"He hasn't really been involved with us [Bay of Plenty] since he was at school, playing for Waikato and other areas before the Super Rugby stint overseas, but he's back in our community and if he's keen to stick around in Rotorua then it could be good for him to get back out on the paddock and back to doing what he loves."

Rugby Players Association chief executive Rob Nichol said any return to the rugby field was not as important as helping Ripia deal with his problems.

"Willie may never go back to the rugby field and that's no big issue for us.

"We are more concerned with Willie Ripia and his future, what's right for him."

Nichol added that Ripia had been receiving help from the NZRPA for some years.

"Prior to his departure to Australia he was taking some fantastic steps. But sometimes you think you are several steps ahead of where you actually are."

with APNZ

- Bay of Plenty Times

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