He's about as close as you get to being an accidental All Black.

Piri Weepu, the 27-year-old halfback, stumbled into rugby much the same way he stumbles into most things in life - led by others, happy just to "go with the flow".

Once embedded in the 15-man code, Weepu has pursued his career with his unique brand of determination; one not always obvious to those who don't know him best.

To call him a throwback to a more innocent era, before KPIs and BMIs, would not be quite true. Weepu might be well into fatherhood, but he can still wear his cap sideways and his jeans slung low with the best of them.


There is, however, something old-school about Weepu. He will smile when others feel he should be grimacing, grow a beard that could have wandered straight out of the Appalachians and when he comes back from his summer break, it really does look like he's had a summer break.

"I am pretty laid-back. I tend to go with the flow," Weepu says. It's an attitude he tries to take on to the field, to the undoubted frustration of a few coaches, who tend to be a little more tightly wound, down the years.

"I try not to get myself worked up so I play a few games with Ma'a [Nonu] on the field. It's good to have a bit of balance on the field and to be able to chill out on the field, as well as knowing what your job is. That's the way I've been brought up - I don't really make a lot of fuss about many things. I'm not really one for planning things. I'm more the sort of bloke who just jumps in the car and goes with it."

Being an All Black was a long way from his mind when he was growing up. Hemmed in by hills on three sides and connected to the rest of the Hutt Valley by a narrow hill route, Wainuiomata might not be a town, but it's much more than a suburb.

They love their heroes in Wainui and in the late 80s and early 90s the strongest sporting currency was league. Led by Ken Laban, Wainuiomata applied grid principles taught to him by then Newcastle Knights coach Allan McMahon (a direct descendent on the coaching tree of respected analyst Warren "The Wok" Ryan).

With forwards like the Lomax brothers - John, Tony, David and Arnold - and playmakers Ali Davys and Jason Gilbert, Wainuiomata were a force in every sense. New Zealand club league was taken by storm. Laban's last match for Wainuiomata was in 1990, when he led his side to a 34-12 thrashing of Otahuhu in the national final on Carlaw Park.

There's a photo in the 1990 Rugby League Annual of Laban holding the Lion Red Cup aloft. Peering up admiringly is Laban's faithful shadow, a 7-year-old Piri Awahou Tihou Weepu.

"Accidental All Black. That's about the best description you could give Piri," Laban says. "He grew up at that league club. His parents, Bill and Kura, were club statisticians. His grandmother, Bubby Turner, was a club stalwart and his older brother Billy was a little bit like a league version of Jonah Lomu and Victor Vito. He was a man-child, a monster of a kid."


Weepu the younger was a dressing-room rat, scuttling around from player to player but always nesting somewhere near Laban's coat-peg.

"He was a little impressionable kid in the dressing rooms in a lot of those pre-game, emotional situations. Rugby league was a pretty brutal game back then. At a young age he was exposed to a lot of 'mature' talk.

"Back in the day it was all bullshit and no brains," Laban recalls. "Bash'em up, drag'em out and see how we're going at halftime. It was not sophisticated. It was all emotion and no logic."

Weepu was occasionally used for nefarious purposes. A natural-born ballboy, Weepu would hug the touchline waiting for Laban's signal. That sign would come when Wainuiomata were hard on defence and needed a breather. Weepu would then "accidentally" kick a second ball on to the park, stopping play.

"I'm not so proud of that, looking back," Laban admits.

Weepu made his debut for Laban's touch team that summer. Now, 21 years later, they're still running around together, but in the intervening years Weepu, who Laban reckoned would have been an Issac Luke-type league player, found rugby.

He didn't have much choice.

"I never played rugby until I went to Te Aute College," Weepu says. He was a reluctant attendee at first, admitting he "behaved like a little brat" when told he would be following family tradition to the rural Hawkes Bay school, rather than joining a couple of mates at Hato Paora, another traditional Maori boarding school near Feilding.

"I'm proud I was sent to the same school as my father and my brother. It was a great experience actually ... [but] every opportunity I got I would come home and play league. There were times when I was trying to get out of boarding school to go and play league in the weekends, but it just got a bit hard to keep getting permission."

Weepu said he learned two things at Te Aute, manners and the haka.

The latter is indisputable; the first point, like his dedication to fitness, is not always obvious.

Weepu can project a disdain, for the media in particular, that seems to be a speciality of those who play for the Hurricanes.

Not that it matters a great deal - seldom has minding your p's and q's contributed to winning tests. It's debatable whether the haka helps much either, but when done well it remains one of sport's great pieces of theatre - and Weepu always does it well.

"I remember when I first learned the college haka," Weepu says. "I was like a kid in a candy store really. It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about Maori culture."

When Weepu left school he planned on following brother Billy into a professional league career, but by then he was turning heads and was placed into the Wellington Academy system. Faced with the choice of following a professional rugby career while staying close to his mates from home, or chasing a league dream in unfamiliar Australia, Weepu stayed.

The rest is a complicated sort of history.

He has played 49 tests for the All Blacks, 31 as a replacement. He has constantly battled Southland's heart-on-his-sleeve halfback Jimmy Cowan for the coaches' affections. Byron Kelleher, Andy Ellis, Brendon Leonard and Alby Mathewson are other suitors who have been at times preferred.

None can claim to be as naturally gifted, none can kick for goal and none can cover first five-eighth like Weepu, yet he has never fully won over Graham Henry. To be fair to Henry, he hasn't been ambiguous in his instructions to Weepu. He wanted him to work harder off the field, on his fitness and his homework on the opposition.

In 2007, Weepu tried Henry's patience once too often. The halfback was dropped on the eve of the World Cup. A late night in Auckland before the final Tri-Nations test was partially blamed. Angry? Upset? Maybe for a few minutes.

"I didn't give myself any time to dwell on it. It was everyone else around me, family and friends, that found it hard," he says.

"There was not a lot I could do. I didn't want to sit around and cry about it, so I got straight back into the following weekend and played for Wellington against Otago. I had to get around everyone else that was upset and try to convince them to get on the same bandwagon."

Laban puts it more bluntly.

"They all wanted to shoot Ted [Henry], you know what I mean? Piri just wanted to get on with it. He kept his dummy in his mouth. It was a significant moment of maturity for him."

Not that he doesn't get down. When he broke his leg last year against Taranaki - during a time when he was meant to be on All Black stand-down but instead answered an SOS from Wellington - Laban went to visit him in hospital. "I've never seen him so low. To see him run back out in that No9 black jersey was special. When Dan Carter gets injured, there's no doubt he'll get back. The same with Richie [McCaw]. But when Piri faces a bit of adversity, there's three or four guys snapping at his heels."

Weepu's place looks more assured, in the near future anyway. He's signed an extension with the NZRU that will seen him continue to play here, though he will shift from the fractured Hurricanes to the Blues.

It will give him an opportunity to, literally, test new waters. Piri might love rugby, but his perfect day would play out on a different surface.

"That would consist of diving. Spending the day diving, being on the water and not having to worry about anything."

Before taking up his accidental career again.