One of the first ‘development’ projects undertaken by Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, when he was included on the 2008 Spring Tour off a very limited background, SEKOPE KEPU has developed to such an extent that he is now arguably the most valuable front-row asset in Australian Rugby.This was reinforced again during last year’s mid-year Tests against Wales where he was one of the Qantas Wallabies’ best, due to his powerful scrummaging, athleticism around the field, and general reliability in both defense and with ball retention in contact. Such is the extent of Kepu’s work-rate and overall ground coverage; he often covers the amount of territory in a Test match to reflect the loose forward he used to be. Equally capable on both sides of the scrum: in 2011 he was predominantly used at loosehead, while last year saw him almost exclusively in action as a tight-head; Kepu featured in all 11 Test matches for which he was available in 2011. The run only ended when he was ruled out of the final three games of the year due to an injury sustained when accidentally poked in the eye by a team-mate during the Rugby World Cup semi-final. That work load was cut last year due to a knee injury which removed him for much of the inaugural Castrol EDGE Rugby Championship, although he made a pleasing return in the second half of the drawn Bledisloe Cup Test against New Zealand prior to figuring in all four matches of the Spring Tour. That trip was the now 27-year-old’s third European tour after a graduated introduction which saw him play just three Test matches in his first three years as a member of the Wallabies squad. This was partly due to the log jam of props at the Waratahs where he was posited behind the experienced Test props Benn Robinson and Al Baxter. It was not until Baxter’s retirement two years ago that the door opened for the former New Zealand age-group representative to cement a starting position, where he has this year gone beyond 50 Super Rugby appearances.A strong season with the Waratahs then vaulted him into Test contention, taking over from Robinson after he was ruled out of the entire 2011 Test campaign due to a knee injury. Kepu is a former No.8 who was converted into a prop by the current New Zealand assistant coach, and front row specialist Mike Cron. Although born in Sydney, where his family had moved from Tonga, Kepu was sent to New Zealand for schooling. This led to him being educated at Jonah Lomu’s old school – south Auckland’s Wesley College. Kepu returned to Wesley to be hosted at a special homecoming school assembly during the Rugby World Cup, presenting the school with the jersey he wore during Australia’s Tri Nations-sealing Test victory over New Zealand at Brisbane.A star from No.8 for the New Zealand Under-17 and Under-19 sides, Kepu was switched up front and made the Chiefs wider training group of players for three consecutive years between 2005 and 2007. He shared the front-row duties with current All Black propping brothers Ben and Owen Franks in the New Zealand Under-21 side of 2006, while also further honing his front row craft playing 20 matches for Counties Manukau in the New Zealand NPC.The opportunity to return to Australia came up in 2008 when he was recruited by the Waratahs, and the move paid an almost immediate return with inclusion on that year’s Qantas Wallabies Spring Tour of Europe. After appearing off the bench against Italy and France, Kepu had the misfortune to tear his pectoral muscle during the dramatic tour-ending 18-11 win over the Barbarians at Wembley Stadium. He made it back in time, towards the end of the Super Rugby season, in order to win a place on the 2009 Spring Tour, but played just the Scotland Test, while also featuring in the mid-week wins over Gloucester and the Cardiff Blues.Although restricted largely to duty off the bench in the 2010 Super Rugby tournament, Kepu was ready to advance when the opportunity arose the following year, with the ability to prop on both sides of the scrum significantly enhancing his selection claims.Befitting his previous ‘life’ as a loose forward, Kepu brings explosive strength and mobility to his game. The Randwick prop is the second member of his family to play international Rugby: elder brother Sione Kepu was a New Zealand Sevens rep in 2001, while also appearing for Auckland and Counties Manukau in the NPC as a No.8.Fast Fact: Sekope Kepu carries the middle name Miami. This was given to him due to a family following of the action television series ‘Miami Vice’ around the time that he was born.
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21 MAY 2013