Piri Weepu: London Welsh turn to All Blacks World Cup 'saviour'
Soon after losing his place in the All Blacks squad last year, their unofficial World Cup saviour Piri Weepu tweeted: "Down but not out… As always..."
It was a message that would prove prophetic. Six months later the popular half-back suffered a minor stroke and required surgery to repair a hole in his heart.
A further six months on and here he is at London Welsh, preparing to dip his toes into the unfamiliar waters of England's Premiership as the promoted club begin life back among the elite at their adopted Oxford home against Exeter on Sunday.
Having left his three young children - daughters of three and four, and a 20-month-old son - behind in New Zealand, Weepu, who turns 31 on Sunday, can hardly be accused of taking the soft option by coming to south-west London, where the Exiles train at their former Old Deer Park home.
But no matter how lonely he gets in the flat above a Richmond cafe he is sharing with Australian flanker Lachlan McCaffrey, Weepu's recent health scare helps him keep things in perspective.
Nothing will compare to the dark moments he experienced earlier this year when, after suffering blurred vision and unable to communicate properly following a training session with the Blues Super 15 team, a neurologist told him he had suffered a minor stroke.
|Weepu on his health problems|
|"I'm not going to lie. I cried. I cried in front of my team-mates. It was quite scary and hard to swallow."|
"Telling my mum what had happened on the phone was difficult," he said. "Straight after that I had to tell my team-mates and having one of my very close team-mates in the room (All Blacks centre Ma'a Nonu) at the same time was very difficult. I'm not going to lie. I cried. I cried in front of my team-mates. It was quite scary and hard to swallow."
It was a far cry from the adulation and attention Weepu enjoyed three years ago when he rescued New Zealand from an unthinkable World Cup quarter-final exit on home soil by kicking 23 points against Argentina in the absence of the injured Dan Carter.
A 'Piri Weepu for Prime Minister' Facebook page was soon created, fans wore 'Keep Calm, Piri's On' T-shirts for the semi-final against Australia, and he was nicknamed 'Mr Fix-It' by the rugby-obsessed nation's media.
Weepu would later lead the haka in the final against France, the video of which has since been viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube. With World Cup glory finally secured after a 24-year wait, the scrum-half was a cult hero in his homeland.
A loss of form and the emergence of several younger All Blacks scrum-halves saw the 71-cap half-back lose his place in the New Zealand squad last August, but his enthusiasm for his sport remains undimmed.
Even before the heart operation following his stroke, Weepu's thoughts were already focused on his return. He counts himself incredibly fortunate.
"Before surgery we talked about recovery time and I asked how quickly I could get back out on the pitch after the op," he said.
"There was no doubt I would play again. I would have tried anything to get back on the field. I never thought about not playing again.
|Piri Weepu factfile|
|Born: 7 September 1983, Lower Hutt, New Zealand||Height: 1.78m|
|Position: Scrum-half/fly-half||Weight: 94kg|
|Club: London Welsh||New Zealand Appearances: 71|
|Did you know?: He is the brother of former rugby league professional Billy Weepu.||Did you know?: Weepu has also played for the New Zealand Under 21 indoor netball team.|
"If footie is your life then you do everything possible. I was lucky. You get some guys with injured necks and things like that who try and do everything possible but it doesn't work out."
'The Saviour' now finds himself tasked with performing similar inspirational feats among the merry band of journeymen at London Welsh.
With options limited following his stroke, a chance meeting at the World Club 10s tournament in Singapore - "a few cheeky beers one night seemed to do the trick," joked Welsh's head coach Justin Burnell - stoked Weepu's curiosity sufficiently to persuade him to become one of 25 new players recruited by the club following promotion from the Championship.
"They were the only option available to me at the time," Weepu tells BBC Sport. "After the stroke everything went downhill in terms of opportunities so I was very fortunate when Justin approached me in Singapore and asked if I would be interested."
It could be several months before he sees his family again. Skype and Facetime will have to suffice in the meantime.
"It was difficult to walk away, it definitely was," he adds. "But for me I guess it is a last opportunity to come over here and get a taste of the Premiership."
The Weepu of today is softly spoken and unassuming, a broad smile never far away, although he hasn't always been to everyone's taste. For a player once described as "a walking disciplinary nightmare: lippy, bolshie and boozy", it is evident Weepu is already hugely popular at Welsh.
He is almost embarrassed at the suggestion the presence of a World Cup winner in their ranks is a huge boost for the Premiership newcomers. "I hadn't really thought about it like that," he says. "I'm just looking at it as an opportunity to play some footie and take on this new challenge."
Despite his achievements, Weepu's motivation is as strong as ever, even if he is a little wider around the waist than he used to be. He feels he has an awful lot to prove to people and more importantly to himself, having constantly faced criticism over his weight.
"The motivation is still pretty good," he says. "I guess I'm trying to prove a point to myself that I can do the job. I've had to do that throughout my career, prove a point. If I'm no good then shoot me.
"I'm here to do a job and I want to make sure I do a good job; hopefully everything else falls into place with the rest of the team."
Weepu, who began life at London Welsh by taking on water-boy duties in a friendly against Pontypridd, intends to fully immerse himself in the culture of the club and his new surroundings.
Old mates and compatriots in other sports around the country and across the Channel can also expect a visit.
He hopes to watch footballing compatriot Winston Reid play for West Ham in the Premier League, and his good friend David Maniapoto-Faiumu for rugby league side Huddersfield Giants. Trips to France to catch up with Toulouse prop Neemia Tialata are also on the agenda.
He is also enjoying discovering the joys of London's Tube network.
While he will miss his children the most, his mother's cooking comes a close second. A well-known local burger restaurant in Richmond may see a lot of the former Hurricanes and Blues star.
He is contracted to Welsh for two seasons and, after all the recent uncertainty, is not looking beyond that.
"I haven't thought too far ahead, I'm focused on doing the best job I can do," he says.