Willie Ripia: 'I've prepared myself as best as I can and I
guess we'll just see how we go when you guys are watching.'
At the end of a lengthy talk to the media about his
return to the rugby fold from his gambling addiction, Willie
Ripia is asked whether New Zealand Maori coaches Jamie Joseph
and Daryl Gibson have taken a risk in selecting him.
It is, after all, quite a return for Ripia and quite a leap
of faith from Joseph and Gibson.
Having quit the Western Force Super Rugby team in Perth
earlier in the year after allegedly stealing from his
teammates to fund an out-of-control gambling habit, Ripia's
life was in turmoil.
The 27-year-old returned to the family home in Rotorua, a
welcome place of refuge after the isolation of Western
Australia, and wasn't sure whether he wanted to play sport at
the top level again.
He had taken the first step in acknowledging he had a problem
but Ripia questioned whether the pressure and spotlight would
be a good idea so soon after reaching rock bottom.
After a while he got the urge to put on the boots, but wasn't
required for Bay of Plenty in the ITM Cup; instead he played
for the province's development team - a former professional
player training at the end of the day with guys who had just
put in a shift at the office or factory, an experience he
calls "humbling" and which sparked his desire to aim for the
Now, he has been called up for the New Zealand Maori, a proud
team which will tomorrow leave for the United Kingdom and
three matches in a little over a week against Leicester
Tigers, a Championship Select XV and Canada.
He also happens to be the only specialist first-five in the
So, a risky call? Absolutely, says Ripia.
"Definitely, mate, they've definitely taken a risk. I guess
if you take in what happened, it's real high risk.
"They've spoken to me about that and I guess we've had a talk
about how they can help me progress and help the team and my
"It's a definite risk, I understand that. I knew that when
they made the call. I did a bit of work before I got here so
I've prepared myself as best as I can and I guess we'll just
see how we go when you guys are watching."
Ripia knows more than just the media will be watching - he is
aware his every move will be scrutinised by the public, some
of whom will "want to throw some shots at me" - but so far he
hasn't put a foot wrong after being given what he considers a
On Saturday when the team assembled in Auckland he felt he
had to address the group about his issues - without any
prompting from the coaches.
"For me it was daunting. I had to address the team. You never
want to be in a team or an environment where you are treated
differently, [where] people have to think about what they say
or how they say it or where they go. I had to say I don't
want to be that person. I have to earn that trust because
trust is huge.
"That was part of my process of stepping up and confronting
Ripia doesn't like to go into details about his final days in
Perth, but says his gambling problem started as soon as he
became a professional rugby player.
He made his Waikato debut in 2005 before joining the
Highlanders for a season but spent most of his Super Rugby
career at the Hurricanes before a move to the Force last
"It was tough over there. I went by myself. You start early,
punting, and you finish late. I isolated myself, I didn't put
myself amongst people, which is huge. I wanted to be alone so
I would have no one to talk to or no one to question how I
was doing things."
Ripia hopes the Maori tour will give his rehabilitation real
impetus and, realises he has a chance to showcase himself to
European clubs. He says it's too early to say what his plans
are. Staying in New Zealand and fighting for a Super Rugby
contract is a possibility.
His gambling of choice was horse racing. And no, it hasn't
escaped him that he is leaving for his shot at redemption on
Melbourne Cup day, one of the biggest betting days of the
year in Australasia.
"It's quite fitting that we're training through most of the
day," he says.
At the time of the big race he will be with his teammates on
Orakei Marae in Auckland for an official farewell - one, he
hopes, also represents a fresh start.