Songs of praise: How Kepu was blindsided by emotional captaincy call

With his eyes closed and singing in a deep baritone, Sekope Kepu was oblivious to the ruse unfolding around him.

As had become the custom in meetings of the new Moana Pasifika team, proceedings included an assortment of songs reflecting the combined cultures in the room. Here, at the club’s Auckland training base, footballers of Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Niuean and Maori heritage were combining as one of two new Super Rugby Pacific franchises.

Sekope Kepu sings in the team huddle following the Super Rugby pre-season trial match between Moana Pasifika and the Chiefs.Credit:Getty

“After our session we had a team meeting, we were singing, and I was in the moment,” Kepu said.

“We were singing all these different songs and different languages, and I had my eyes closed.”

To his surprise, Kepu had been asked a few days earlier by coach Aaron Mauger to be Moana Pasifika’s inaugural captain.

The former Wallabies prop said he’d be honoured but wanted no fuss, and had instead sent the message out he would host a team barbecue that evening. Kepu asked his wife Anna if she could help sort out the salads while he was at training. She declined.

“She said: ‘Hmm, I am busy, sorry’,” Kepu said.

Still singing, Kepu opened his eyes in the team room.

“And then the moment I look up I see half of my family sitting down in the room, and I thought ‘hey what’s going on here?’. I saw my wife and kids … and the penny dropped,” Kepu said.

“I got a bit emotional. She got me good.”

The announcement of Kepu’s captaincy to the team was met with a huge roar, and the video of Kepu’s teary reaction and inspiring speech had all the right feels to go viral around the world.

Sekope Kepu lines up ahead of a trial match against the Chiefs.Credit:Getty

“I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would lead this team, knowing we had guys like Christian (Lealiifano) and Jack (Lam), who have led the Brumbies and Manu Samoa,” Kepu told the Herald from Queenstown.

“I am always the guy who is a bit stand-offish and shy. I am more a guy who rounds up the troops from the back and make sure guys are OK, and check in on the young guys. I like to do that work behind the scenes and sit with the young guys and ask about their story. That was always my leadership style, but Aaron asked me and I was lost for words.”

As far as Mauger was concerned, Kepu’s leadership style was tailor-made for the new Moana Pasifika outfit. Granted a Super Rugby licence, along with the Fijian Drua, late in 2021, Moana Pasifika were put together in a comparative hurry. The team – pulling together players from all corners of the Pacific Islands – gathered a whole squad for the first time only on January 5.

Sekope Kepu at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.Credit:Getty

With many of the squad young, inexperienced and in need of a respected elder, 110-cap Wallaby prop Kepu, a proud Tongan, was a standout choice.

“Even still now I forget I have been given the role and it’s a first captain of a club, so it’s got some history to it. I still pinch myself,” Kepu said.

Rewind a year though, and Kepu had no idea he’d still be playing rugby, let alone making a return to Super Rugby.

Kepu left the Waratahs and Australia after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and joined London Irish in the English Premiership. After returning to Auckland during the early COVID-19 lockdown, however, it became clear Anna’s parents and grandparents needed care. After a return to London, plans were made for her and the four Kepu kids – Faith-Rose, Israel, Isaiah and Steven-Judah – to come home at the start of 2021.

Kepu would play out his second year at London Irish and follow, but it soon became clear that as a non-New Zealand resident, under strict COVID-19 rules, the prop couldn’t enter the country unless he was with his family. All other options were looked at – including spending $100,000 on tickets to travel via Australia – but in the end Kepu had to ask Irish for a release and come home in February 2021.

“We explored everything, but unfortunately I couldn’t stay,” Kepu said.

“My thought was I would look to go into some coaching, and I never really thought I would come back and play to be honest.”

Two-side props with a century of Tests on the CV don’t grow on trees, however, and soon enough the Highlanders and Brumbies got in touch about short-term contracts to cover injuries.

“But London Irish blocked it,” Kepu said. “I would have loved those opportunities. But in the end they were a bit sour about me leaving. They cut my pay but didn’t release me, either.”

Kepu won a Super Rugby premiership with the Waratahs in 2014.Credit:James Alcock

Eventually, an offer to play for Counties in the NPC came through, and Kepu finally pulled the boots back on in August. And when Moana Pasifika began casting their net for players, the 36-year-old was in the first batch of calls. Two-side props with a century of caps and Tongan heritage, who live Auckland, grow on even fewer trees.

Also recruited were former Wallabies playmaker Lealiifano and Lam, who grew up in Canberra and played for the Australian schoolboys.

“It wasn’t a plan to come back and play rugby but the Counties gig came up, and soon after the Moana Pasifika opportunity came up too. And here I am a year on, and just about to go back into Super Rugby, which is pretty cool,” Kepu said.

“The speed and the intensity is massive, obviously, but I see it as a refreshing challenge to have another crack, with some energetic young kids keen to get into it.

Christian Lealiifano is on the bench for Moana Pasifika in their first game.Credit:Rugby AU Media/Stuart Walmsley

“And it is really nice to have guys like Christian and Jack Lam helping drive the team and the standards. It’s been awesome so far, and we are not the finished package but we are keen to get into and start something new. It’s exciting times.”

The chance for Kepu, and all the Moana Pasifika squad, to represent their respective heritages was a huge lure. In their first week of camp, four days were set aside for the players to learn more from Pacific Islander educators about the histories of their people, and to share their own stories, too.

“We learnt about our ancestors and their journeys,” Kepu said.

“It was mind-blowing to know more about them, and all the travel they’d done and the voyages.

“We took a trip four hours out of Auckland and visited with one of the tribes who still have some of the same make of sailing ships, and they used them to travel across to Hawaii, America, all through the Pacific and to New Zealand.

Kepu warming up with Moana Pasifika.Credit:Getty

“It was just a chance to express and understand how proud [we are] of who we are and our history. That’s something we have built in this group. Regardless of who you are and what you’ve done, we get around you and make this place a family. It’s pretty special. It is a unique team, obviously with such rich history.”

For players whose nations combat each other fiercely on a football field, bonds have formed quickly. Kepu says laughter is a constant soundtrack.

Those bonds have been needed in the last few weeks, when Moana Pasifika suffered rolling setbacks due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad. Their round one game against the Blues was postponed, and given many of the squad had endured up to 14 days in New Zealand’s still-strict isolation rules, the second round clash against the Chiefs was postponed too.

On Friday night, finally, Moana Pasifika will get on the field for their historic first match but just to add a degree of difficulty, they’ll meet the mighty Crusaders.

It will be Kepu’s 142nd Super Rugby game but 11 of his teammates will be on debut.

“I am not going to lie, it’s been a tough couple of weeks on a few of the boys,” Kepu said.

“A lot of guys who haven’t played Super Rugby, and a lot of fringe Super Rugby guys as well. There are a few guys at different levels. They’re growing day by day, but there are guys still learning the ropes. But everyone is helping each other and we are looking forward to it.

“We understand the challenge and understand it’s going to be tough against the Crusaders. But this team has come together, we have a lot of exciting young talent who have been given the chance to play. And I am sure they will do themselves and their families proud.

“They will do their people proud.”

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