Catching up with the Weekly for the final time before he farewells New Zealand, Piri Weepu is upbeat, and hopefully he’ll wave goodbye to the many trials of the past few years. The most significant is, of course, the shocking stroke he suffered in March that left him and his family fearing the worst.
But although his playing future is bright, and he’s signed a lucrative two-year deal with English club London Welsh, the anguish he’s feeling about leaving his three children, Keira (four), Taylor (three) and Peyton (18 months), in Wellington is almost too much for the rugby hard man to talk about.
“I have my moments when the kids are with me, and I’ll think, ‘Damn! How am I going to deal with this?’” Piri (31) admits. “It’s not going to be easy, that’s for sure.”
There’s a new life ready and waiting for the former Blues halfback in London – a life that will help him provide for his children, as well as his wider family, all of whom he’s incredibly close to.
And while mum Kura is “bloody proud” of her youngest son, the fact he’ll be living on the other side of the world isn’t sitting too well with her.
“I know the kids have to fly the nest one day, but it sucks,” she says frankly, wrapping her arms tight around Piri. “But as his father and I have always said, he’s got our backing with everything he does.”
Sitting cuddled up together as they chat to the Weekly on a typically windy Wellington day, Piri and Kura banter back and forth, taking the mickey out of each other relentlessly.
While some of their terms of endearment would never make it to print, and the rest are far from traditional – “clown” and “egg” are favourites – it’s this shared sense of humour that’s got them through the hard times.
Indeed, when Piri rang her earlier this year to reveal he’d suffered a stroke and needed heart surgery, Kura masked her worry with trademark Weepu humour.
“She had a little moment, and then she started giving me stick, saying, ‘Oh, son, you’re getting old!’” Piri recalls with a grin.
“But I would have been freaked out if she wasn’t joking around, because it’s just how we deal with things.”
A few days after the stroke that left Piri’s fans completely dumbfounded – after all, what 30-year-old professional sportsman suffers a stroke? – Kura accompanied her son to see a specialist.
“The doctors were talking about his brain,” she recalls, a smile already playing on her lips, “and I was like, ‘Oh, does he have one?’ Turns out he did! I’m sure the doctors thought we were the weirdest family they’d ever seen, but it’s just the way we are.”
Yet underneath the joking and teasing, Piri admits he was terrified when the diagnosis was revealed.
“I cried when they said it was a stroke,” he confides.
“I still remember very clearly when it happened – I couldn’t see anything. My head hurt and I couldn’t talk. It was like I became a baby again. I couldn’t form any words. But I thought it was a delayed concussion, so that day I got on a plane to South Africa with the team.”
It was only once he’d arrived that he realised his lingering symptoms weren’t a result of a knock to the head and came back to New Zealand for tests, which revealed a previously undetected hole in his heart.
“Before the tests, I was thinking it would be a tumour or something – I was really fearing the worst.”
Not least because health scares are becoming all too common in the Weepu family.
Just after the All Black’s triumph in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Piri’s father Bill nearly died from septicemia when a leg infection poisoned his blood, while Kura has her own issues – namely, recurring kidney and gall stones.
It was due to the stress of her family’s health issues that Kura took up smoking again after quitting two years earlier – and Piri’s not happy about it.
So he has signed on as an ambassador for Stoptober – New Zealand’s first “mass quitting” month, run by Smokefree New Zealand, in a bid to inspire his mum to give up the ciggies.
“I’m trying to get Mum back on the wagon,” he smiles. “She has grandkids now. She’s done it before and I know she can do it again.”
It was the intense pressure she was under, says Kura, that led her back to the tobacco. “When you get stressed and angry, you have to take it out on something, so I took it out on the smokes. But I’m trying to cut back.”
Piri figured out what was going on when he spotted Kura ducking out the front door a lot. “Every time I knew she’d be out there with her little cancer sticks,” he grins.
“No, no,” protests Kura with a cheeky smile. “Sometimes I’m doing the washing!”
“Yeah, you hang the washing out and then light up!” Piri fires back.
Piri’s promised to send daily texts and as many calls as possible to Kura during Stoptober, and the rest of the family are getting on board with day-to-day support. Clinical research shows that smokers who manage to stop for a month are five times more likely to quit, so Piri is determined to see Kura stick out the month.
The two share an incredibly close relationship, one that was forged long ago through rugby and league. Growing up, Piri and his elder brother Billy were coached by Kura in league and softball.
“Mum and I are really similar, while Billy and Dad are the same,” says Piri. “Those two are whingers, whereas we get on with things!”
Kura has fond but mixed memories of Piri when he was growing up. “He was a little sod back then,” she tells. “I remember trying to stand him down for one particular game because he was being cheeky and he wouldn’t listen to me. I tried to make an example of him. I said, ‘Okay, that’s it, you’re not playing.’”
Piri begins laughing. “I just turned around and said, ‘I’m the best player on the team. You need me!’”
“And the little toe rag was right,” Kura shrugs. “He’s always been a mischievous one.”
Almost 20 years later, nothing much has changed, except that now he’s played 71 tests for the All Blacks, with his place as a character of the game firmly cemented in history.
He has a few regrets – never winning a Super Rugby title being the biggest one – but has managed to elevate himself to legend status with his man-of-the-match winning performance in the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, and first-five Dan Carter injured, Piri took on the kicking duties and rallied the team.
That game inspired many internet memes and jokes, with T-shirts reading “Keep Calm, Piri’s On” selling hot, and a series of “Piri can” jokes that Kura still likes to bring up to embarrass her son.
“Remember that one: ‘Piri Weepu can walk into Burger King and get a Big Mac?” she asks, poking him in the ribs as he puts his head in his hands.
“Or ‘Some people wear Superman pyjamas, but Superman wears Piri Weepu pyjamas.’ Or ‘It takes Piri Weepu 20 minutes to watch 60 Minutes.’”
“Yes, Mum, I remember,” he sighs.
As this loving pair swap memories, it’s clearly important to Piri that he squeezes in as much time as possible with his whanau before he boards his plane. But Kura knows her son will be OK because, as she says, she’s raised tough boys.
“I think we’ve done a good job,” she says. “What makes a good parent? Putting a roof over their heads, food on the table and giving them some love.
“The rest is up to him – and he’ll be brilliant.”
- BodyCould magnetic therapy be the solution to treating aches and pains?
Good Health ChoicesToday 8:15am
- BodyDr Libby on why we're overusing the word 'stressed' and how we should really be thinking about the term
Good Health ChoicesToday 12:00pm
- Family50 years on from the Manson murders Debra Tate speaks out about her sister Sharon's murder
The Australian Women's WeeklyToday 10:00am
- TVHow Athena Angelou went from homeless to radio star in just a few short years
Woman's DayToday 7:55am
- Diet & NutritionHow to ensure you're putting the most nutritious grocery options in your trolley
Good Health ChoicesYesterday 12:00pm
- CareerWhy Jennifer Aniston is looking to the future with a new focus
Now To LoveYesterday 9:00am
- TVThe Block NZ favourites Ethan and Sam: 'We had a rough run but we stayed true to ourselves'
Woman's DayYesterday 7:30am
- RoyalsPrince Harry shares more details about his upcoming mental health TV series with Oprah
Now To LoveSep 20, 2019
- CareerMy life is stranger than fiction says NZ Children's Book Awards winner Bren MacDibble
New Zealand Woman's WeeklySep 20, 2019
- TVThe Block NZ winners Lisa and Ribz reveal their post-show plans
Woman's DaySep 20, 2019
- MindWhy Shortland Street's Ana Scotney was forced to quit social media
Woman's DaySep 19, 2019