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'It's a young man's game these days': Zane Kapeli's last-ditch shot at Super Rugby

By Michael Pulman
Zane Kapeli. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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It has been a whirlwind journey for Tongan-international Zane Kapeli, both on and off the field.

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Just a few short weeks ago, the 28-year-old was finishing off a builder’s apprenticeship and starting full-time work. Settled back in Hamilton with a young family, Kapeli had almost accepted that Super Rugby might not be for him.

Then, Clayton McMillan and the Chiefs came calling.

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It was far from the first roll of the dice for the 10-test Tongan international, nor was it uncommon for the Chiefs to have to bring in injury cover.

Kapeli had had his opportunities in Super Rugby. There had been his signing with the Highlanders in 2020, and when no game time came of that, Kapeli was a part of the Hurricanes 2021 preseason, only to find himself out of their plans as well.

It was time to come back to Hamilton, finish the apprenticeship, and find full-time work. Rugby-wise, Kapeli would turn out for Hamilton Marist in the Premier club competition, but a pro career in New Zealand was all but off the cards.

“I was back on the tools and trying to finish off my building apprenticeship,” Kapeli told RugbyPass. “I had just stepped into full-time work when I got a phone call from the Chiefs saying they were keen to bring me in, so I had the weekend to put the tools away, brush off the boots and then I was into training first thing on Monday morning.”

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With a contract for the remainder of the season on offer, Kapeli had just a few short days to get everything in order, including telling his boss he would not be back on the worksite.

Everything has fallen into place nicely since then for the laid-back loose forward who has impressed in his three outings. With versatility being one of the most desirable qualities for the modern loose forward, Kapeli has covered lock for the Chiefs and has emerged as a genuine defending powerhouse.

Impressive enough to warrant an appearance on the bench ahead of Liam Messam in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final, Kapeli is set to cover both roles during Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

“I’ve been enjoying the role of being a utility loosie as well as a lock. I want to do what is best for the team and at the moment my role is to cover that area. I’ve managed to be able to get my name on the board and contribute on the field as well as hopefully off it.”

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It took time for the 28-year-old to learn about his rugby strengths and the requirements of the sport at this level. After being a regular stand out for Waikato between 2013 and 2015, Kapeli took a break from rugby, a break that he now says gave him much perspective.

“It’s funny how things work out,” Kapeli said. “Having a break put a lot of perspective in terms of me figuring out what works best especially in terms of me learning the game and how important it is just to go hard with training, learn what works best for me with nutrition and all these things I think I’ve had to learn in sort of a roundabout way.

“I feel like I’m just starting to hit my straps now in terms of understanding my role and what works best for me come training day and game day. Things are really starting to click later in life I guess, I’m really old because in New Zealand it’s a young man’s game these days.”

There were questions bubbling away in the back of Kapeli’s mind about considering overseas offers or giving the pro game away altogether.

Based on his form for the Chiefs so far since taking up on their offer, it is fair to say the investment is already bringing solid returns, both for the franchise and the man himself.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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'It's a young man's game these days': Zane Kapeli's last-ditch shot at Super Rugby

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