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‘Proving people wrong’: How Du’Plessis Kirifi overcame NZ Schoolboys heartbreak

By Finn Morton
Du'Plessis Kirifi of the Hurricanes looks on during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on April 08, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Years ago, Du’Plessis Kirifi was right next to future Hurricanes teammate Jordie Barrett at Francis Douglas Memorial College when he received the phone call that no aspiring All Black wants.

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The high schooler had “tried his best” to make the esteemed New Zealand Schoolboys squad, and was clearly in the mix for selection – but then his phone rang.

Moments earlier, as the two classmates waited for the first period to start, Barrett had been told over the phone that he’d missed out on the coveted squad.

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Kirifi remembered thinking that the coach was delivering “all the bad news” at that time. So, when his phone rang, the rising star knew what was coming.

Every year, the best schoolboy talents in New Zealand are selected in the squad – and many have gone on to succeed at Test level with the All Blacks.

But, after missing out back in his high school days, Kirifi has opened up about the “different pathway” he’s taken to Super Rugby stardom.

“I tried, I tried my best,” Kirifi told RugbyPass. “Jordie (Barrett) and I both got the phone call one after the other that we didn’t make schools.

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“No 20s either. I had a good campaign with the Waikato Under-19s team in that Jock Hobbs tournament, and we won it. I just wasn’t able to kick on from that tournament and didn’t make 20s.

“I still haven’t worn the silver fern to be honest. Hoping to one day pull it on.

“I just took a different journey I guess, a different pathway to get to where I am now.”

For any aspiring All Black, Wallaby, Springbok or rugby talent of any other nationality, schoolboy selection is a defining moment in their young careers.

Especially growing up, as Kirifi remembers, “you put so much value in making teams.”

It can make or break you.

But “it wasn’t the be all and end all” for Kirifi.

The flanker didn’t let that setback define him – and has gone on to captain the Wellington Lions, impress for the Hurricanes, and was once called into the All Blacks as injury cover.

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Kirifi has had a point to prove – and after missing out on the all-important schoolboys team many years ago, the 26-year-old has made multiple statements on the rugby field.

“Definitely the proving people wrong part. Especially when I was younger, I was so stubborn – probably to my detriment at times,” he added.

“I’d say that through my stubbornness, that’s probably how I kind of got to where I am.

“But when you’re a kid, you put so much value in making teams and when you don’t make a team like that it really knocks you.

“For me it wasn’t the be all and end all… I just kept doing my thing, I started studying as well to have backup plans in place and kind of kicked on a little bit and got lucky a few times – well, by luck I mean I was just in the right spot at the right time.

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“It was a big thing back then, and especially when you’re young you put so much value in competing against other people and trying to make teams that it can affect you in a big way.

“Hard work and work ethic have always been a big thing that my parents tried to teach me from a young age, so whether I was making teams or not I guess that kind of stuck with me.”

After missing out on both the New Zealand Schoolboys and Under-20s teams, Kirifi put his head down and focused on what he could control.

Kirifi never considered releasing his rugby dream and walking away from the sport, and instead continued to channel his competitiveness and hatred of losing.

“Even if I was just playing club rugby, I was trying to be the best club rugby player I possibly could be.

“The competitive nature in me… coupled with my work ethic kind of kept me afloat. If I hadn’t made a rep team and I was just playing club rugby, I was trying to be the best at club rugby training, be the best on Saturday.

“Whether anyone was watching or not, I just hated losing.

“I think that turned a few heads at a few stages and I think that was my saving grace in the end.

“I just needed an opportunity and I ended up getting it through Wellington and I haven’t looked back really.”

Coach Ian Foster called Kirifi into the All Blacks’ Tri-Nations squad back in 2020, which suggested the flanker was the radar for higher honours at Test level.

But in the three years since, the New Plymouth-born talent hasn’t returned to the national setup – and is yet to make his debut in the famous black jersey.

Kirifi “caught up with” All Blacks assistant coach Jason Ryan a couple of weeks ago, who gave the Hurricanes No. 7 some feedback.

Again, as he has done throughout his entire career – dating back to that dejecting phone call as a schoolboy – Kirifi has focused on what he can control. Harbouring a dream of playing for the All Blacks, Kirifi is focused on his gameday performance and preparation.

That rest, including whether the “big dogs” at the All Blacks opt to select him or not, isn’t his decision to make.

“The ABs is always the dream, if you’re playing rugby in New Zealand and you’re able, I think that’s what everyone dreams to do.

“At the end of the day bro, I want to be an All Black, but I’m not stressing about what I can’t control. That’s what I’d say, what I can control is how I play and how I prep, and what I can’t control is what the big dogs up top think.

“If they like it they like it bro, if they don’t, they don’t. It’s all part of it really.”

The New Zealand Schoolboys are set to take on Australia in two matches next week, starting with a clash on Monday. The rivals will go head-to-head for a second time on Saturday in the curtain raiser to the Hurricanes vs Crusaders clash.

But first for Kirifi and the Hurricanes, they’ll make the trip north to Auckland to face the high flying Blues at Eden Park.

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Comments

2 Comments
M
MattJH 417 days ago

Love watching Du’Plessis play. Just keep doing what you’re doing bro, you’ll get your shot.

b
by George! 417 days ago

Your an All Black in my book mate.

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