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Du'Plessis Kirifi: The challenge of coming off bench for 'special' Peter Lakai

By Adam Julian
Du'Plessis Kirifi and Peter Lakai of the Hurricanes. Photos by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images and Phil Walter/Getty Images

Du’Plessis Kirifi believes his career took “a big leap” a couple of years ago when he narrowed down “one or two things” he could be better at during the season. Nailing specifics around weekly routines and greater accuracy at the breakdown, coupled with good coaches and teammates pushing him harder, has turned Kirifi into a possible All Blacks contender.

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Ironically then he’s spent most of Super Rugby Pacific coming off the bench for the Hurricanes. Inadvertently his impact from the pine might have enhanced his game. Kirifi changes contests with his restless energy. In a crowded cohort of quality sevens, he’s presenting a different picture to national selectors with his short, sharp bursts.

“I’ve started the majority of my career so coming off the bench is a challenge for me. We want our starters to have the best game they can, but you want to come on and make an impact too. As a teammate and a competitor coming off the bench is a challenge I’m embracing,” Kirifi told RugbyPass.

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“Dupes is strong off the bench as well as starting. Showing different types of roles is good for players’ aspirations around the All Blacks. For us, getting different impacts in different ways is something we’ve talked a lot about. Loose forward is the area of selection we have the most discussions,” said Hurricanes coach Clark Laidlaw.

Kirifi has been kept out of the starting XV most of the season by explosive youngster Peter Lakai.

“He’s a special kid, Peter Lakai. He’s got a lot of size; a natural athlete, explosive, fast, and skilled with a good head on his shoulders. He works hard every week. We compete hard to make each other better. When one of us starts, we hope the other one plays well,” Kirifi said.

The Hurricanes have used 40 players in 2024. Forty players were used during the whole of last year’s campaign. After 11 outings this season, Pasilio Tosi is the only remaining Hurricanes player who has appeared in every match.

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Healthy competition and depth of talent have been integral in the Hurricanes making their best start to a Super Rugby season. Eight wins on the trot included victories against all the New Zealand sides: Crusaders (14-10), Highlanders (47-12), Chiefs (36-23), and Blues (29-21).

The Friday before last in Wellington the Waratahs were walloped 41-12. The Hurricanes have now won their last 18 matches played against Australian sides in New Zealand. Those wins are against the Rebels (five times), Brumbies (four), Force, Reds, and Waratahs (three each).

On Saturday the Hurricanes were narrowly beaten by the Blues at Eden Park. The winner is now well poised to finish the round-robin top. The Blues haven’t lost a match since their March 9 setback to the Hurricanes in Wellington. Through twelve rounds the Hurricanes have now scored 57 tries, the Blues 56.

“We’re going to have to start by being physical up front, they’ve picked a big team, so we expect it to be physical. We need to set the platform being accurate at set piece and at the ruck,” Kirifi said ahead of the match.

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The Hurricanes went with a 6-2 split of forwards on their bench. The Blues went with the more orthodox 5-3 split.

“We feel the strength in depth of our loose forwards, we want to bring on impact and think it will be a physical battle up front and the breakdown will be hotly contested,” Clark Laidlaw said.

“Having guys like Du’Plessis and Devan (Flanders) come on, adds to the game and I like having a strong team on at the end. It helps keep the momentum for the full 80.”

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Kirifi’s career has gained serious momentum since becoming Wellington Lions captain in 2019.

He was educated at Francis Douglas Memorial College (FDMC) in New Plymouth and enjoyed two outstanding seasons in the First XV with Jordie Barrett. FDMC won 22 out of 24 games in 2013, including the Central North Island title for the only time. A top-eight finish in New Zealand was their best-ever performance. In 2014, Francis Douglas won 16 out of 21 matches. Twice bigger local rivals New Plymouth Boys’ High School was toppled.

In 2017 Kirifi was a standout for Waikato at the National under-19 Jock Hobbs Memorial tournament. In the final, Waikato beat Auckland 25-22. Club Rugby reported:

“Kirifi won pivotal turnovers with his low body position and combative defence. He also carried with gusto and was dramatically denied a try in the 46th minute when run down after a 35-metre charge by Dalton Papali’i.”

The openside flanker was surprisingly excluded from the New Zealand Under-20s, an admission that stunned many, but not Kirifi himself, who said in August 2017.

“My preparation for the first camp wasn’t as good or long as it could have been. I was disappointed but unsurprised to be left out. There were a lot of good players.”

But his career was at a crossroads. Shunned from Waikato he took on some labouring work in Wellington and was embraced by the Norths club where he has played 23 matches (21 wins) and won two Jubilee Cups in 2019 and 2022.

In 2017 the Wellington Lions won the NPC championship to regain their place in the 2018 Premiership where they reached the semis.

In 2019 Kirifi was appointed captain, a position he’s held for 46 matches (34 wins). In 2022 Wellington won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time since 2008 and the NPC Premiership for the first time since 2000 – amid a record 21-game winning streak.

“It feels pretty good when you’re in the middle of runs like that, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of something that amazing you don’t realise it until it’s over and rue you didn’t enjoy it as much as you could have.

“To be honest, we dropped the ball towards the end of 2023. To go through all that and lose two games by three points, including the Shield, was a huge anti-climax. Still, it was a pretty special run.

“The difference between an NPC run and a Super Rugby run is the group is bigger so the challenge you face is bringing everyone along. Because there are more people injured, or not playing, it can be harder to contribute.

“I was thrust into the Lions captaincy at 21. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t ready, but sometimes you’re not and you grow through the challenge.

“I’ve been lucky to have an amazing group of people to help out, TJ Perenara, Jackson Gardon-Bachop, James Blackwell, and more recently, Aidan Morgan, Peter Lakai, Billy Procter, and Caleb Delany.”

There have only been five Wellington Lions NPC winning captains. The first was prop Kevin ‘Butch’ Phelan in 1978. Phelan played 111 matches for Wellington and had an All Blacks trial in 1975. Maori All Blacks loose forward Paul Quinn followed in 1981. The former Labour Party MP played 103 games and scored 27 tries for Wellington with an All Blacks trial in 1979. All Black Kevin Boroevich led the charge from prop in 1986. He debuted for King Country as a 17-year-old in 1978 before representing Wellington 83 times. In 2000 All Blacks hooker Norm Hewitt famously led Wellington to a 34-29 victory over Canterbury in Christchurch in the NPC final. Jonah Lomu scored two classic tries. Hewitt played the last part of the match with a broken arm. Hewitt played 31 of his 296 first-class matches for Wellington.

Kirifi debuted for the Hurricanes and scored a try in a 20-19 win over the Waratahs in 2019. He has played 74 games (44 wins) for the Hurricanes and scored eight tries. He has played the Blues 10 times but only achieved three victories.

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Comments

7 Comments
S
Scott 71 days ago

Du Plessis Kirifi will not be selected by the All Blacks. He is nowhere near 6’0” tall. He looks good in Super Rugby in wide open , fast pace rugby. That is not Test rugby. He would be rag dolled by South Africa, Ireland, France, and England.

s
swivel 71 days ago

Returning to the Chiefs would be another good change that could only put him into a better position to succeed in black

A
Andrew 71 days ago

Paul Quinn was a National MP.

J
Jasyn 71 days ago

Peter Lakai has a ‘lot of size’? Since when? To Kirifi maybe.

I think Laidlaw clearly saw he’s too small for 6 or 8, so plonked him at 7. Has potential to be Ardies understudy in black for 7.

N
Nickers 71 days ago

The banning of the croc roll will make carrying the ball into contact far more risky, leading to more kicking, and the change to the Dupont law will mean forwards have to do far more running than they do now.

As a result I think there will be a rise of smaller, more mobile forwards who are strong defenders and strong over the ball like Kirifi.

T
Troy 72 days ago

There's a log jam at the moment of quality number sevens competing for an All Black jersey. I think Du Plessis Kirifi is certainly one of them and has now developed an accurate sharp and energetic game as compared to when he was first picked. Would love to see Billy Harmon get first dibs at the jersey (been outstanding in a struggling side for a few seasons now), as I believe we've seen enough of Papali'i to understand what he brings to the role. Lakai is young and will get his shot. Du Plessis would be a bolt off the bench but his lack of versatility may hinder his chances.

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