This weekend, Sekope Kepu will become just the ninth player to represent Australia in 100 Test matches, and the first prop, when the Wallabies play New Zealand in Yokohama, Japan.
Born in Sydney to Tongan parents, Sekope moved with his family to Auckland at a young age, Captaining the 1st XV at Wesley College and representing New Zealand at Under 17, Under 19 and Under 21 level, before returning to Sydney to play for the Waratahs after a handful of matches for Counties Manukau in the (then) National Provincial Championship (NPC, now Mitre 10 Cup).
The rest, as they say, is history as he has gone on to make well over 100 Super Rugby appearances for the Waratahs, and also taken in a brief stint with Bordeaux in the French Top 14. Sekope joins Adam Ashley-Cooper, David Campese, Matt Giteau, George Gregan, Stephen Larkham, Stephen Moore, Nathan Sharpe and George Smith in raising the bat for Australia.
It represents a truly wonderful achievement for the 32-year-old known to all as ‘Keps’, and comes just two walks short of a decade after he made his Wallaby debut off the bench against Italy in Padova, November 2008, replacing Ben Alexander in a 30-20 victory as a young Quade Cooper also played his first Test.
On the bench with Kepu that day were two other Tongan-Australians who he would go on to play an extraordinary amount of Rugby with, in Wycliff Palu and Tatafu Polota-Nau. This week, to honour Keps, we reached out Palu to find out more about the man, his achievement and how much it means to ‘Cliffy’ to be able to cheer him on from the stands this weekend.
Here it is, in Wycliff’s own words…
“Tony D’arcy introduced me to Keps before a Waratahs training session, and that was the first time I met him. I remember instantly thinking that he was a big kid, he had long Jheri curly hair back then! With both of us being Tongan, we connected straight away.
“When I first joined the Waratahs, there weren’t many Islander guys in the squad; you basically had Lote (Tuqiri) that we all looked up to, and when you’re thrown into that environment as a Pacific Islander it’s natural that you’re quite shy and stand you back a little bit. You migrate towards other Islanders, and when Keps first came in I tried to make him feel as comfortable as possible as because I had already been there for a couple of seasons.
“He was only about 21 when he moved over to Australia to join the ‘Tahs, but he was already married and I worked out quickly that he was very mature for his age. He already knew what he wanted to achieve, and he realised that he was sacrificing a lot in leaving his Mum, Dad and immediate family back in New Zealand. To come to Australia and really put himself out there, it just demonstrated how determined he was to be successful, and that and nothing was going to stop him from achieving that.
“I’ve seen him play that role for a long time now, helping new guys at the Waratahs and Wallabies, especially as we see more and more guys from Pasifika backgrounds coming through in Australian Rugby. I think it’s important for them that he keeps passing that on, but it’s important for him too. He understands what they’re going through, and he wants to make sure that they are comfortable to stand on their own two feet.
“When he came to the Waratahs, it was clear that he was actually the most skilful forward we had, and it was quite funny that he was actually packing down in the front row at scrum time. He always had good footwork, and he has always been a good ball carrier and passer. I didn’t find out until quite a bit later that he did play in the backrow, and that he only transitioned into playing prop not that long before he come over.
“You could always tell that he had all the makings to go on and become a truly world-class player, which he has done.
“Even though he had spent most of his life in New Zealand, playing for Australia has always meant everything to him. I was there for his first test, when we both came off the bench against Italy. He’s told me many times that his Mum says that’s why he was born in Australia; it was meant to be. When he was selected to play for the Wallabies, his entire family was extremely happy and proud and they are all absolute diehard Wallabies supporters back in New Zealand.
“When he went and played with Bordeaux, one of the biggest things that he said was how much he missed playing for Australia. And he didn’t mean just playing Test matches, he really missed even being in that Wallaby environment and all the things that come with representing your country.
“That’s something which he does try and pass on to the younger guys when they’re making decisions about contracting - just to have a good think about all that sort of stuff, about wearing the Gold jersey and what it means to them, and being around the amazing Wallabies culture.
“His family (wife Anna, daughter Faith-Rose, and sons Israel, Isaiah and Judah) mean absolutely everything to him. He has always wanted to provide a better life for them, and I have learnt a lot from him even though he is a few years younger than me. I’ve also learnt heaps from his beautiful wine Anna and their beautiful kids, and they have been special people to have in my family’s life.
“I’m extremely happy to see where he has come from, and what he has had to go through, to get to this point and to play 100 tests. Keps has been a great inspiration, not only for myself but also for all of his other teammates and all of the Islander kids coming through, and it’s been awesome to see what he has been able to achieve.
“I’m playing for Kurita over here in Japan, so I will catch up with him and some of the other boys during the week and then will definitely go and watch the match on Saturday.
“If I had to say anything to him? Just enjoy it I guess – to be the first ever Wallaby prop to 100 Tests, that’s massive. I know he will try to play it down, but it’s something that Keps, his wife, his parents and all of his family should be extremely proud of.
Sekope Kepu joins other notable Wesley College (Auckland) Rugby alumni, including the late Jonah Lomu, former Reds player Ezra Taylor, new Brumbies recruit Toni Pulu and a number of star All Blacks, including Sitiveni Sivivatu, Malakai Fekitoa, Stephen Donald, Nepo Laulala and Charles Piutau.