Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Selectors have taken a risk on me - Ripia

Willie Ripia. Photo / Daily Post
Willie Ripia. Photo / Daily Post

At the end of a lengthy talk to the media about his return to the rugby fold from his gambling addiction, Willie Ripia is asked whether New Zealand Maori coaches Jamie Joseph and Daryl Gibson have taken a risk in selecting him.

It is, after all, quite a return for Ripia and quite a leap of faith from Joseph and Gibson.

Having quit the Western Force Super Rugby team in Perth earlier in the year after allegedly stealing from his teammates to fund an out-of-control gambling habit, Ripia's life was in turmoil. The 27-year-old returned to the family home in Rotorua, a welcome place of refuge after the isolation of Western Australia, and wasn't sure whether he wanted to play sport at the top level again.

He had taken the first step in acknowledging he had a problem but Ripia questioned whether the pressure and spotlight would be a good idea so soon after reaching rock bottom.

After a while he got the urge to put on the boots, but wasn't required for Bay of Plenty in the ITM Cup; instead he played for the province's development team - a former professional player training at the end of the day with guys who had just put in a shift at the office or factory, an experience he calls ``humbling'' and which sparked his desire to aim for the top again.

Now, he has been called up for the New Zealand Maori, a proud team which will tomorrow leave for the United Kingdom and three matches in a little over a week against Leicester Tigers, a Championship Select XV and Canada.

He also happens to be the only specialist first-five in the squad.

So, a risky call? Absolutely, says Ripia.

"Definitely, mate, they've definitely taken a risk. I guess if you take in what happened, it's real high risk. They've spoken to me about that and I guess we've had a talk about how they can help me progress and help the team and my career. It's a definite risk, I understand that. I knew that when they made the call. I did a bit of work before I got here so I've prepared myself as best as I can and I guess we'll just see how we go when you guys are watching.''

Ripia knows more than just the media will be watching - he is aware his every move will be scrutinised by the public, some of whom will ``want to throw some shots at me'' - but so far he hasn't put a foot wrong after being given what he considers a second chance.

On Saturday when the team assembled in Auckland he felt he had to address the group about his issues - without any prompting from the coaches.

"For me it was daunting. I had to address the team. You never want to be in a team or an environment where you are treated differently, [where] people have to think about what they say or how they say it or where they go. I had to say I don't want to be that person. I have to earn that trust because trust is huge.

"That was part of my process of stepping up and confronting it.''

Ripia doesn't like to go into details about his final days in Perth, but says his gambling problem started as soon as he became a professional rugby player. He made his Waikato debut in 2005 before joining the Highlanders for a season but spent most of his Super Rugby career at the Hurricanes before a move to the Force last year.

"It was tough over there. I went by myself. You start early, punting, and you finish late. I isolated myself, I didn't put myself amongst people, which is huge. I wanted to be alone so I would have no one to talk to or no one to question how I was doing things.''

Ripia hopes the Maori tour will give his rehabilitation real impetus and, realises he has a chance to showcase himself to European clubs. He says it's too early to say what his plans are. Staying in New Zealand and fighting for a Super Rugby contract is a possibility.

His gambling of choice was horse racing. And no, it hasn't escaped him that he is leaving for his shot at redemption on Melbourne Cup day, one of the biggest betting days of the year in Australasia.

"It's quite fitting that we're training through most of the day,'' he says.

At the time of the big race he will be with his teammates on Orakei Marae in Auckland for an official farewell - one, he hopes, also represents a fresh start.

Maori itinerary:

November 13 v Leicester Tigers, at Welford Road Stadium

November 17 v Championship Select XV, at Castle Park

November 23 v Canada, at Oxford University

- APNZ

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