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All Blacks Sevens playmaker whose name is now next to Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen

By Adam Julian
Tepaea Cook-Savage of New Zealand in action during the final day of Hong Kong SVNS at Hong Kong Stadium on April 7, 2024 in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Edmund So/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

Tepaea Cook-Savage joined the company of some illustrious rugby greats in April.

The All Blacks Sevens playmaker won the Leslie Williams Trophy for ‘best and fairest’ player at the Hong Kong Sevens.

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The accolade is named after an Englishman who was a stalwart for the Hong Kong Football Club and represented Hong Kong at the international senior level. In 1979 Williams passed away of a heart attack in New Zealand. He was 45 years old.

Williams award (initiated in 1980) was a tribute to his outstanding service to local rugby and his commitment to fair play. David Campese (1988), Eric Rush (1991), Waisale Serevi (1989, 90, 98), Jonah Lomu (1995), Christian Cullen (1996), and Karl Te Nanna (2000, 01) are among those to receive the accolade.

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“It was good, the last one in the old stadium,” Cook-Savage reflected with classic Kiwi modesty to RugbyPass.

“We wanted to make the most of it. We had one day off and that was the day before the tournament. I just chilled in my room with the air con on. Hong Kong is a crazy city, bro.”

The All Black Sevens secured their first victory of the 2023-24 SVNS series foiling France 10-7 in the Cup final. What changed following a disastrous 10th-place finish in Los Angeles in March?

“Not a lot to be honest. We were only losing by a few points in LA. We were only winning by small margins in Hong Kong. We just stuck at it, and took every opportunity,” Cook-Savage responded.

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Before success against France, New Zealand enjoyed narrow escapes against Great Britain (12-7), USA (12-7), and Fiji (19-12).

With two minutes remaining against Great Britain, New Zealand poached a turnover on halfway and Cook-Savage weaved past three defenders and scampered free.  He scored another try in the 26-7 win over Australia in the semifinal.

In the absence of Akuila Rokolisoa, Cook-Savage has become an integral playmaker for the All Blacks Sevens.

“My job is to make my tackles, create opportunities to free up other boys, and score points,” he said.

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Cook-Savage debuted for the All Blacks Sevens in Cape Town in 2022. The following month he signed a two-year contract.

In 2023 he was part of winning tournaments in Hong Kong and Singapore as New Zealand captured overall SVNS honours for the 14th time.

“I was a bit of a troublemaker,” Cook-Savage admits looking back on his upbringing in Kaitaia, 160 km northwest of Whangarei.

One of eight siblings all he wanted to do was “crack footy” but boredom and “typical dumb stuff,” threatened to derail that ambition.

Detective Eddie Evans is a respected rugby coach in Kaitaia. He provided Cook-Savage with a life-changing opportunity when the restless teen was 15.

“I got an opportunity to go to St Paul’s Collegiate and do my last three years of high school in Hamilton. Eddie knew people down there,” Cook-Savage explained.

“St Paul’s was massive for me. I got my Level 3. I got to play in CNI which we won my last two years. So many people helped me, too many to thank,  it was mean.”

The Central North Island (CNI) competition started in 2012. Ten schools play for the Taine Randell Cup. Randell was an Otago and All Blacks captain who thrived at Lindisfarne College (1987-1991).

In the 2023 Rugby World Cup final, seven of the 23 All Blacks that took the field were from CNI schools, the most of any competition in New Zealand.

Cook-Savage was contracted to the Waikato Academy from St Paul’s and debuted for the province in their centenary season (2021) where they won the NPC Premiership for the first time since 2006.

In 2023 Cook-Savage was Waikato’s leading points scorer and helped the ‘Mooloos’ topple Auckland (27-12), Canterbury (37-35), and Otago (47-7) in successive matches after an unsettled start. The 2024 Rugby Almanack reported:

“Te Paea Cook-Savage was the Mr. Fixit, wearing four jersey numbers in the backline, including first-five against Auckland, when he even managed a drop goal. It was the only drop goal in the whole NPC.”

Professional rugby isn’t the only carrot Cook-Savage secured in Hamilton. He met Chiefs Manawa flanker Mia Anderson at Waikato University.

“She didn’t believe me; I was actually at Uni, aye. It was honestly random when we were in the same class. I kept following her she was like, ‘Are you supposed to be here,’” Cook-Savage laughed.

Anderson scored a try in the Super Rugby Aupiki final, ranked ninth for the most tackles in the overall tourney, and is on an interim contract as injury cover for the Black Ferns. The couple have a son named Kairewa.

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