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Weepu takes charge, wins fans at World Cup

Updated: October 18, 2011, 19:17

AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Within three weeks at the Rugby World Cup, Piri Weepu's role with the All Blacks soared from extra man to Superman.

Weepu began the tournament as a backup to scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan, a handy man to have on the bench for his ability to cover both scrumhalf and flyhalf. He heads into Sunday's final as an indispensable part of the All Blacks team and a rising champion of the people.

He leads the All Blacks' haka then takes the kickoff that starts the game.

When a tournament-ending injury to star flyhalf Dan Carter threatened to derail New Zealand's campaign, it was Weepu who stepped into the breach. He stayed at scrumhalf but took on goalkicking, tactical and other responsibilities that relieved the pressure on the All Blacks created by Carter's absence.

In doing so he made himself an immediate hero among All Blacks rugby fans and a star on social networking sites.

A 'Piri is THE MAN' site garnered dozens of droll statements of Weepu's ability.

"Some people wear Superman pajamas. Superman wears Piri Weepu pajamas,'' one post said. "If at first you don't succeed you're not Piri Weepu,'' said another.

A T-shirt printed shortly before New Zealand's 20-6 semifinal win over Australia on Sunday and bearing the logo "keep calm, Piri's on'' sold in record numbers. "It's gone crazy. It's our best-selling T-shirt ever,'' the maker said.

Manipulated photographs circulated on the internet pretending to show Weepu dealing with an oil spill off New Zealand's north coast and apparently solving the global financial crisis. A poll two months out from New Zealand's general election listed him second among preferred candidates for Prime Minister.

Weepu told reporters he pays no attention to social networking sites and, with a forgivable malapropism, that he found the Twitter buzz "pedantic.''

Teammate Cory Jane, a prolific tweeter and one of the jokers of the All Blacks' team, suggested Weepu may be more interested than he lets on.

"He loves it. The more people that talk about him, the more, I guess, he plays well,'' Jane said. "When people stop talking about him in the media or referring to him as 'our savior' or stuff like that, then he will start playing badly.''

The fact that Weepu has been playing well has been of vital importance to the All Blacks as they've made their way to a Rugby World Cup final for the third time, despite injuries to Carter and his immediate successor Colin Slade.

New Zealanders feared an injury to Carter as the worst-case scenario for the All Blacks' Cup campaign, an insurmountable setback. But Weepu's ability to accept a big share of new responsibility, taking some of the pressure from Slade, then his replacement Aaron Cruden has allowed New Zealand to keep its campaign on track.

He helped steer the All Blacks to a 33-10 quarterfinal victory over Argentina in the All Blacks' first real test of life without Carter, taking the goalkicking responsibilities ahead of Slade, then Cruden, and kicking seven penalties from seven attempts.

"I just managed to do what was required,'' Weepu said later. "We have guys in the team that are probably more important. I've always been a part of (the All Blacks' leadership group), I guess, just not as much as Daniel (Carter) or Richie (McCaw).

"Most of the attention is put on me, which means other guys can express themselves more and be more of a threat. Especially guys like Ma'a (Nonu) and now that Aaron's in the No 10 position, he can get a chance to express himself and worry about what he wants to do and not so much looking for opportunities out of nothing.''

Weepu's goalkicking was less accurate in the semifinal against Australia - he kicked four penalties and missed four - but still managed vital goals and controlled play well from scrumhalf. The semifinal was played a year to the day after Weepu broke his leg playing for Wellington province in a national championship match, later losing his All Blacks place during a long rehabilitation.

He faced an immense battle to regain fitness, an effort acknowledged by head coach Graham Henry who described Weepu as "a quality player.'' Weepu still had ground to make up at this World Cup; he entered it as second fiddle behind Cowan but as Cowan's form faded, Weepu stepped into the scrumhalf role and into the pivotal role in the All Blacks' campaign.

His game has developed. His tactical kicking has gained accuracy and depth, the strong running element of his game has become sharper and more directed and his service to his backline has become more crisp and effective.

Personal loss has cast a shadow over Weepu's World Cup but he has played on. He learned from his father, immediately after the quarterfinal against Argentina, that his grandfather, Johnny Lui, had died. Weepu left the All Blacks camp briefly to attend the funeral, then returned to recommence his semifinal preparation.

Weepu said receiving the news of his grandfather's death had been "pretty tough.'' Of Maori and Niuean descent, Weepu comes from a close-knit family and was especially close to his grandfather.

At the end of the semifinal, beset by conflicting emotions, he seemed reluctant to leave Eden Park, but found some consolation in the warm admiration of the crowd.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity,'' he said of the semifinal win. "It's a great achievement for me after coming off last week and getting the bad news. I'm pretty sure he's (grandfather) looking down on me and is very proud.''

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