Rob Kidd is a NZME. News Service court reporter based in Auckland.

Ex-rugby star hits out after drug charge

A former player has launched a stinging attack against New Zealand Rugby after he says he was left on the scrapheap, broke and battered.

George Leaupepe, who played alongside Jonah Lomu in the star-studded Counties Manukau team of the 1990s, was fined after police found a hydroponic cannabis set-up in his Auckland bedroom.

He pleaded guilty to a charge of cultivating the class-C drug and spoke to the Herald to hit out at those behind the game he played for more than a decade.

While the former midfield back admitted fault, he said the cannabis was purely for personal medicinal use after being left with injuries from his years on the field.

"I've got a pinched nerve in my neck. I get pain up and down my left arm and doctors can't prescribe anything for it," Leaupepe said.

"I've looked at all sorts of things to numb the pain but that seems to be the only thing that works."

The 26-cap Samoan international said he felt he had been left on the scrapheap along with a generation of other players who saw the game transition from amateur to professional in their careers.

"A lot of us feel the same way about how New Zealand Rugby used us at the time, and when we finished there was really nothing for us," Leaupepe said.

"It's quite funny seeing as we were part of the players' association."

When Leaupepe appeared in the Auckland District Court in December, Judge David Harvey sentenced him to 150 hours community work. Last week, Justice John Faire cancelled that on appeal and imposed a fine of $1550 instead.

Police had been called to Leaupepe's Onehunga home for an unrelated matter and found five cannabis plants in a hydroponic growing set-up in the corner of his bedroom.

They were in a tent under a lightbulb with two plastic fans, a plastic pressure sprayer, a container holding fertiliser and a stainless steel lampshade, which Justice Faire called a "sophisticated" operation.

But the judge was persuaded to reduce the penalty against Leaupepe after reading a letter from his doctor, one from his employer and a reference from his former Counties coach Andrew Talaimanu.

Mr Talaimanu called it "out of character and most likely resulting from some hardships suffered over the last 18 months".

Leaupepe explained that his youngest brother died of a heart attack and his ex-partner walked out with their three sons during that time.

The cannabis-cultivation conviction was not the only one to his name. Financial desperation had seen him involved in other trouble.

"I'd try my hand at bloody anything [at that time], to be honest," he said.

During his career there were some who managed to turn their cash into a nest egg, but Leaupepe said the majority, like him, were educationally and psychologically unprepared.

Counties Manukau Centre George Leaupepe raises his arms in triumph after the final whistle blows in the match against Waikato at Pukekohe. Photo / Peter Meecham
Counties Manukau Centre George Leaupepe raises his arms in triumph after the final whistle blows in the match against Waikato at Pukekohe. Photo / Peter Meecham

"We were just working regular jobs and then playing rugby full-time with a lot more money thrown at us than we learned how to deal with," he said.

When his career ended he was left with a broken body and little more than school cert on his CV.

"When you're there everybody wants to get next to you but then when you step away from the limelight it's surprising, the people you think are there for you, those are the very people that turn their backs on you," Leaupepe said.

New Zealand Rugby Players Association boss Rob Nichol said he didn't have knowledge of Leaupepe's situation.

"The big thing we rely on is a heads-up," he said.

"We were unaware of what was happening with George; we're trying to track him down at the moment."

Mr Nichol said players who experienced the transition from amateur to professional status in 1996 were at a disadvantage.

"For the generation of players before the game went professional it wasn't ideal, the support wasn't in existence, a lot of the stuff we have now wasn't in place back then."

He said the players' association was set up after the Rugby World Cup in 1999.

A poll of 123 former players in 2011 showed more than a third had feelings of depression, nearly a quarter had alcohol or substance-abuse issues and 20 per cent suffered relationship problems.

Now with a new partner and daughter, Leaupepe, who is currently working as a truck driver, said he was planning to eventually move to Samoa for an "easier life".

"I've got my head straight now," he said.

- NZ Herald

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