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'We banned social media': All Blacks cult hero Weepu's 2011 World Cup story

By Adam Julian
Keven Mealamu (L) and Piri Weepu of the All Blacks pose with their winners medals after 8-7 victory in the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup Final match between France and New Zealand at Eden Park on October 23, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The All Blacks Rugby World Cup campaign has been far from smooth sailing. A record defeat to France in the tournament opener represented a first pool play loss in 31 games.

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Captain Sam Cane was injured prior to kick-off resulting in bumbling loose forward selections. Prop has become a poisoned chalice and coach Ian Foster faces intense scrutiny for his strategy.

“I’m not a superhero, I don’t wear my jocks over my jeans, I can’t deflect lightning bolts with my hand and I’m not likely to be found rescuing damsels in distress – unless they happen to be my beloved daughters, Kiera or Taylor,” Piri Weepu wrote in his 2012 autobiography Straight Up.

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“Mr Fix-It, Keep Calm Piri is on,” Weepu became a national cult hero and social media sensation for his poised, courageous, and influential performances in the unsettled and personally tragic 2011 Rugby World Cup won by the All Blacks.

So how do the All Blacks handle pressure and potential chaos in 2023?

“The mental side of it is a huge one. We spent the most time on it. Momentum shifts on the opposition side is another. How do we get them back?

“In 2007 we had no one taking a shot at the old drop goal so we needed to have plan B, C, and D up our sleeve. We identified those three areas and tried to nail them week in and week out,” Weepu told RugbyPass.

“We lost to the Springboks and Wallabies before the World Cup which turned into a blessing in disguise because it gave us plenty to work on.

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“We banned social media, that’s a huge distraction. We were organised during the week and tried to fly under the radar.

“One of the best things we talked about was ‘what ifs’. We’d meet in a group and most of the time you’d say what he said and then you’d try and throw a ripper into the system.”

Already guaranteed a quarter-final, Canada should have been a routine week for the All Blacks. There was little to fault in the 79-15 win in Wellington. Even Zac Guildford scored four tries. However, a day earlier first five Daniel Carter tore his groin at practice and was subsequently ruled out of the tournament.

Colin Slade played at first-five for 51 minutes before moving to the wing after Weepu took the field for an injured Mils Muliaina.

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Then in the 64th minute, Slade limped off the field with his own torn groin, and loose forward Victor Vito had to move to the right wing.

Weepu was handed goal-kicking duties, asked to take dropouts, restarts, and perform most of the All Blacks tactical kicking. Additionally, he was the leader of the haka and a member of the senior leadership group.

“Colin Slade had been in camp with boys. We’d played a few games together, so he knew what needed to be done,” Weepu said.

“When Aaron Cruden came in it was my job to make sure he was comfortable and had a clear head to drive the team around.”

What about goal kicking?

“I never put my hand up to take over. When I was asked, I said sweet, I’ll give go. I was pretty chill with it.

“I only practiced in the warm up, looking for how the ball was flying or if the wind was pushing it.

“Mike Bryne was a great help. He never played footy in his life, but he was a legend in the AFL. He taught me all these mini skills of how to kick a ball I’d never thought of before.

“He explained scientifically why the ball flies in a different direction depending on where it hits the foot, and he expanded my kicking options.”

Weepu kicked seven penalties in the tough 33-10 win over Argentina in the quarter-final.

“I got man of the match against Argentina, but it should have been Cory Jane chasing those bombs, putting in huge hits, good attack. He was huge,” Weepu said.

Jane and Israel Dagg owed the All Blacks a favour after breaking the team curfew. Unwanted headlines suggested they went on a bender.

“It wasn’t a bender. They went out for dinner and had a couple of beers. Those boys knew they were at fault,” Weepu said.

After the match, Weepu would be informed of a family tragedy. His paternal grandfather Johnny Lui had died. It was Weepu’s second bereavement in the year. That Easter his maternal grandmother had died. His father Bill Weepu told the New Zealand Herald at the time.

“I thought it could affect his build-up to the test, I thought he should concentrate on the game and because I thought he’d want to come home – he’s very family oriented.

“He was really cut up and he could hardly talk. I knew he was crying.”

Weepu attended the funeral of Johnny in Wainuiomata and then rejoined the All Blacks for the semi-final against Australia who were perceived as a major threat. Weepu was unphased.

“Nah, we weren’t worried about Aussie. Before the World Cup, they beat us in Brisbane but that gave us plenty to work on. We knew if we prepared well, we could match up to their threats or resort to something different like the Aaron Cruden drop goal,” Weepu said.

The All Blacks won a classic victory 20-6. The Ma’a Nonu try, Jerome Kaino’s man-handling of Digby Ioane and the capitulation of mercurial Wallabies first-five Quade Cooper have become classic incidents in All Blacks folklore.

Somehow after losing pool games to New Zealand (17-37) and Tonga (14-19) France made the final.

Coach Marc Lièvremont had publicly fallen out with his players with No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy indicating after the tournament that the team had rebelled against him after the pool stage, and had effectively managed themselves in the knockout rounds.

That chaos would pale into insignificance when compared with the internal strife within the All Blacks. Captain Richie McCaw played on with a broken foot and in the warm up, Weepu would succumb to injury.

“I pulled my groin in the warmup. I came down to follow through a kick and I felt it. I went to the physio who massaged it, stretched it, but I needed a miracle,” Weepu said.

The All Blacks started brightly enough with Tony Woodcock scoring the first try after 15 minutes. It came from a pre-rehearsed lineout.

“We had that move up our sleeve for a while and had done our homework on the opposition. It was based on lineout formation and movement. When we assembled for that five-metre lineout, we had a chat and were like ‘f*** it,” Weepu laughed.

A photograph taken by Andrew Cowie from Colorsport Images and reproduced on the front page of the New Zealand Herald captures the brilliance of the try. It shows Woodcock diving over for the line with four All Blacks behind him without a Frenchman in sight.

It was soon obvious Weepu was crippled. He dragged a conversion and two penalties.

In the 34th minute, Aaron Cruden was ruled out of the game with a hyperextension of his knee. The much-maligned Stephen Donald was his replacement.

“I had faith in Beaver. When he kicked his penalty though I was like, ‘bro sort out your shirt’.

Weepu battled manfully until the 54th minute before he was replaced by Andy Ellis. The All Blacks hung on grimly to win 8-7. McCaw topped the tackle count with 18 and Weepu’s overriding emotion was “relief.”

Weepu would quickly come under scrutiny the following season for alleged weight and fitness issues.

“I was like whatever. I don’t need to defend myself. A lot of the stuff you read is made up. It was then and it hasn’t changed. You can do twenty things right and one thing wrong and they pick on that one thing wrong,” Weepu said.

In October 2010 it looked likely Weepu wouldn’t even make the World Cup. He broke his leg in an NPC match for Wellington against Taranaki. The incident happened early in the second half after he’d kicked a penalty. Paul Lewis noted for the New Zealand Herald that Weepu had been playing a blinder.

“Weepu has added some deft touches to his pivot play. A dab kick here, a searching grubber there, a little Piri pirouette to go with the searching passing he has always possessed at either 9 or 10 – Weepu was Wellington’s rhythm.”

In 2007, Weepu was overlooked for the World Cup and was toying with going to league and did not answer phone calls from the management of the All Blacks. Piri let it be known that he was sorting himself out and that he would let them know when he was ready.

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Comments

3 Comments
J
Jon 258 days ago

Everyone banned social media in those days

B
BR2B 258 days ago

The French should never have lost that game.
SA finals ref, famously «persona non grata » in France, for omitting to penalise repeated ruck foul play in the game’s last minutes.
When you remember the way Kiwis reacted back in 2009 to a French victory Dunedin, throwing seats onto the pitch, you can imagine the pressure weighing on his shoulders to grant locals « their » home win.
That’s life I guess..

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