Counties Manukau junior and Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu has signed with the PIC Steelers for the upcoming Bunnings Warehouse National Provincial Championship in a massive boost for the Union.
Kepu, who was a schoolboy stand-out at Wesley College before heading overseas, had been playing for London Irish in the United Kingdom but the onset of COVID-19 forced him back to family in New Zealand.
The 35-year-old, who has signed on for two seasons with the PIC Steelers, made his first-class debut in the famous red, white and black jersey, playing seven times for the Union in 2006-2007 before heading over the Tasman in search of Super Rugby opportunities.
He linked up with the NSW Waratahs in 2008 and was thrust straight into international football later that year with the Wallabies.
During a glittering professional career Kepu played 141 times for the Waratahs as well as 110 tests for the Wallabies before taking up a contract with London Irish after the 2019 World Cup.
He will bolster a PIC Steelers forward pack that at full strength features All Blacks Nepo Laulala, Dalton Papali’i and Hoskins Sotutu as well as international players like Alamanda Motuga, Viliami Taulani, Sila Puafisi, Kalolo Tuiloma and Sam Slade.
“I am delighted to be able to return to where my professional career started and play for Counties Manukau again,” Kepu said.
“It was an honour to play for my province the first time around and it is extremely fitting that I get the chance to come home in the latter part of my career.
“I am excited about what Tai [PIC Steelers coach Tai Lavea] has put together here with this young and promising squad and I can’t wait to rip in with the boys.”
Lavea is thrilled to be able to secure someone of Kepu’s quality, especially in the all-important front row position.
“Sekope is one of the most renowned props in international rugby and it is a massive coup for us to be able to bring him home,” Lavea said.
“He will bring a huge amount of experience and leadership to our pack. We saw what impact Kieran Read was able to have on the players around him last season and we think Sekope will do likewise.
“I can’t wait to see what he will do in our Steelers jersey.”
Due to contractual commitments with London Irish that officially end this week, Kepu hasn’t been able to play club rugby this season, while the Union has also had to wait to finalise his signing. In recent weeks he has trained with the Karaka premier team and is expected to turn out for them in the last game of the regular season against Ardmore Marist on Saturday.
“I’ve got some great mates at the Karaka club and pretty much the minute I stepped foot back in the country, they were very proactive in wanting me to link up with them,” Kepu said.
“I obviously haven’t been able to play until now and am conscious that the Union would normally offer all clubs the chance to pitch for me to suit up for them if they had been in a position to confirm my signing.
“But given there’s only one week of the regular season left, I didn’t think there was enough time to get around every club and have decided to help out Karaka given my close ties to people at the club and the fact they’ve lost two props to the Tongan test team.
“I can’t wait to pull the boots on again and play some club rugby.”
The PIC Steelers begin their NPC campaign against Manawatu on Friday August 6 in Palmerston North. Kepu will join his teammates for a first home game a week later on Friday August 13 when they host North Harbour at Navigation Homes Stadium.
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