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Former Wallabies centurion eyes unexpected return to NPC and Super Rugby in New Zealand

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Former Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu is eyeing a New Zealand rugby comeback after returning to the country following his exit from Premiership club London Irish.

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Kepu signed with London Irish following the 2019 World Cup in Japan, but after more than a year in lockdown in England, the 110-test international cut short his deal with the Brentford-based club to return to New Zealand due to family health reasons.

The 35-year-old has brought his wife and four children back to Auckland, where he spent 18 years of his life before he departed to Australia to kickstart his Super Rugby career with the Waratahs.

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During his time in New Zealand, Kepu was part of numerous age-grade teams before going on to play NPC for Counties Manukau between 2005 and 2007.

He was also part of the Chiefs’ wider training squad, but a broken collarbone ruined his chance of featuring in the 2007 Super 14 season.

However, while Kepu claims that he “never planned to move back to New Zealand”, the uncertainty of COVID-19 led to the decision to move back to Auckland to be closer to both his and his wife’s parents.

“We’d set up camp in Australia which is home for us. The kids were born there and we settled in quite well,” Kepu told the New Zealand Herald.

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“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.”

Although he is still contracted to London Irish until the end of June, Kepu is expected to play for Counties Manukau for the first time since 2007 in this year’s NPC.

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The provincial season kicks-off on August 6, when the Steelers travel to Palmerston North to take on Manawatu, at which point Kepu will be free of any contractual obligations with London Irish.

Should the three-time World Cup veteran turn out for Counties Manukau, he would be the latest big-name signing for the province, who had Kieran Read, Dalton Papalii and Nepo Laulala on their books last year and have recruited Hoskins Sotutu this season.

“I’m happy to get back to where it all started,” 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.”

NPC isn’t the only competition that Kepu could play in again, as the New Zealand Herald reports that Moana Pasifika are interested in acquiring his services for their inaugural Super Rugby campaign next year.

Whether or not that comes to fruition remains to be seen, but Kepu said he would “love to be part of” the new expansion franchise.

“I’d love to be part of that,” he told the Herald.

“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.”

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Former Wallabies centurion eyes unexpected return to NPC and Super Rugby in New Zealand

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