'Uncle' Kepu still sets standards for Wallabies

Despite his looming international retirement record-breaking Australia prop retains the belief of his team-mates and coaches alike.

TOKYO, 9 Oct - Australia's 22-year-old hooker Jordan Uelese is already dreading the day he will pack down for his country without ever-present front-row rock Sekope Kepu. 

The first prop to win 100 caps for the Wallabies, Kepu, pictured above centre with fellow Australia props Taniela Tupou, left, and Allan Alaalatoa, announced last month that Rugby World Cup 2019 will be his swansong and Uelese is finding it hard to imagine life without the man he affectionately calls "uncle". 

"He's been immense ever since I joined my first Wallabies camp in 2017. Just the knowledge that comes with 109 test caps is immense. His wealth of experience really rubs off on the young fellas. We really look up at him," said the young tyro, who will win his eighth cap if he comes off the bench against Georgia in Shizuoka on Friday. 

"Obviously he knows a lot of the opposition we are coming up against and it really helps to have someone who has been around the park for a long time."

Intriguingly, though, Kepu has battled front rows representing 16 different nations during his 109 Wallaby matches but has never faced the famed Georgia set-piece.

It is something he cannot wait to put right when he makes his first match start at RWC 2019 match on Friday evening. 

"They are big boys. Hearing from Drew (Mitchell, former Wallaby) and those guys that have played with them at Toulon, they are tough buggers and they don't really take any crap from anybody," the 118kg tight-head said with obvious relish.

Many pundits felt the 33-year-old would struggle to get much game-time in Japan with Australia's plethora of exciting young front-row talent. But the veteran, who was one of the first names on the Australia teamsheet at the 2011 and 2015 RWCs, pushed past the likes of 23-year-old Taniela Tupou to be the first-choice, tight-head back-up for the Wallabies' three matches so far.

It is a testament to Kepu's famed affability that this has not affected his role as the front-row mentor-in-chief. 

"We're roomies, too," Kepu said of Tupou, who will get a chance to impress from the bench against Georgia after finally getting some minutes as a replacement against Uruguay. "There is respect for each other, we're really good mates and we know there is competition for the spot.

"It's a squad effort, nothing to do with an individual. He (Tupou) has been great and on the weekend, you could see what he can do and I just encourage him to do it, to keep bringing that side of his game. He is the strongest out there on the field, I can guarantee that."

With such a record there may be a coaching role ahead for Kepu, but not for a while. After RWC 2019 he heads to English Premiership club London Irish where he is sure to have an impact as he reckons he is in the shape of his life, which is backed up by the stats.  

"The body's feeling great. We've (Australia) had a new s&c (strength and conditioning coach) come in and training has been unbelievable," said Kepu, who played an average of 67 minutes per game in Super Rugby last season, more than any other prop in the competition.

"I am feeling in great nick, probably, thinking back, the same as what I was in 2015."

RNS ln/ajr