Sekope Kepu talks to Liam Napier about his unexpected return to New Zealand and his desire to play in this year's NPC.
Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu has opened up on the challenges behind his abrupt exit from London Irish and confirmed he could complete a surprise full-circle journey by playing for Counties Manukau in this year's national provincial competition.
Having returned to Auckland, where he spent 18 years before moving to Sydney and playing 110 tests for the Wallabies, the Herald understands Moana Pasifika have also expressed interest in signing Kepu, the three-time World Cup veteran.
Kepu, his wife and their four children spent 14 months in London lockdown before cutting short his two-year contract with the Brentford-based club that also features Waisake Naholo in February for family health reasons.
The former Waratahs Super Rugby champion initially planned to see out the season with London Irish, only to encounter visa issues with entering New Zealand. As an Australian citizen he had to apply for a single-entry spouse/partner visa and, as such, could not enter New Zealand alone.
"We never planned to move back to New Zealand," Kepu told the Herald. "We'd set up camp in Australia which is home for us. The kids were born there and we settled in quite well.
"Unfortunately with the Covid situation and the uncertainty of travel we made the decision to move back to Auckland to be closer to both our parents.
"It was niggly but it is what it is with the laws at the moment. Day and night we stayed up and tried to find availability with the MIQ facilities to try give the club a bit more time in March, April, May but by then everything had been booked out. June wasn't available. During that period everyone wanted to come home.
"We exhausted every avenue. It was impossible for me to come into New Zealand by myself. That's pretty much it in a nutshell.
"Unfortunately for the club I had to return with the family. As hard as it was, I had to break it to the boys after the game on February 6 that I was leaving the next morning. It was a shock to a few of them but I couldn't really tell them because between the coach and I we were trying to do some work in the background so it was a smooth transition but it wasn't in the end because we couldn't find a replacement.
"I'm at peace because we did everything we could."
Kepu is technically contracted to London Irish until June 30 but is then expected to play for Counties Manukau in the national provincial competition that begins on August 6. He would be the latest big-name signing for the Pukekohe-based union, with Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu switching from Auckland to join fellow All Blacks loose forward Dalton Papalii. Last year former All Blacks captain Kieran Read returned to his roots to pull on the Counties colours too.
"I'm happy to get back to where it all started," the 35-year-old Kepu said. "I feel like my body is in good shape after the stop start season last year.
"The level of the NPC is great. I've had couple of sessions with the Counties lads and the pace is quite quick. I'm really enjoying challenging myself.
"The past few months not playing has given me a chance to refresh and spend time with my kids which I've really enjoyed."
Born in Sydney to Tongan parents, Kepu moved to New Zealand aged three and grew up in Glen Innes. He spent three years playing No 8 for the Wesley College first XV before former All Blacks scrum coach Mike Cron transformed him into a front-rower.
"Mike Cron said to me 'mate we're going to convert you to a prop' which broke my heart a little bit and shattered my dreams, but there's no regrets whatsoever. I'm grateful I made the transition because I wouldn't be here today."
Straight out of school Kepu played for Counties between 2005-07 and was also selected in the New Zealand under 17s, 19s, 21s and in the Chiefs wider training squad, before breaking his collarbone and taking the leap of faith to join the Waratahs.
Depending how the provincial season goes, he could be back playing Super Rugby next year in Moana Pasifika's debut season.
"I'd love to be part of that. Nothing is set in stone – they're still trying to get a coach and everything sorted but it would be awesome to be part of something special, the beginning of a new team. Being from Pacific Island descent, and to play Super Rugby again would be awesome.
"The plan was never to come back here but slowly things are looking brighter. I'm enjoying being back and seeing family and friends I haven't seen for years."