Former All Blacks scrumhalf Piri Weepu is to return to the rugby field for the Auckland Blues tomorrow, less than a month after he was diagnosed with a heart condition that had caused a minor stroke.
The 30-year-old had surgery to repair a small hole in his heart after scans late last month revealed that he had been playing through the symptoms of the stroke for three weeks.
He returned to training last week and Blues coach John Kirwan yesterday named him among the replacements to face the New South Wales Waratahs at Eden Park.
“I don’t know how the fitness is, we’ll see when I’m running around with the boys,” Weepu said in Auckland. “But I’ve been chipping away at it for the past two weeks or week and a half, and I’m feeling pretty good actually.”
Kirwan had little hesitation in restoring the experienced Weepu to his side after he was given the all-clear, with flyhalf continuing to be a problem area for the former All Blacks winger, with Simon Hickey and Chris Noakes sharing the role this season to varying success.
His problems deepened on Monday, with high-profile rugby league convert Benji Marshall asking for a release from his contract after failing to adjust to the 15-man code.
Hickey, who was yesterday named as New Zealand’s under-20 captain for the world championships later this year, was restored to the starting side for their clash with the Waratahs.
The 20-year-old was dropped after struggling against the ACT Brumbies three weeks ago and with Hawke’s Bay flyhalf Ihaia West due to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench tomorrow, Kirwan felt Weepu’s experience would help the young duo get into the game.
“It will be great to have Piri’s experience on the bench,” Kirwan said in a statement.
“With Simon outside him and Ihaia who are both very young men, Piri’s experience will be really important so its great he’s been cleared to play,” he added.
Kirwan’s side are facing an uphill battle to resurrect their season after they were comprehensively outplayed by the Hurricanes last week.
“I don’t need to hide the fact how important this match is for the franchise, for the team and for our fans,” he said.
“We said last week that against the Hurricanes, if we lost away from home then we were going to be under pressure and were under pressure, we’ve just got to get out there and go hard,” Kirwan said.
“It’s going to be a really physical game, I don’t know how many Wallabies they’ve got, I stopped counting so it’s going to be a great matchup,” he added.
The 11th-placed Blues are last in the New Zealand conference on 16 points, while the Waratahs are in fourth overall on 24 points and have the top-ranked Australian side, the ACT Brumbies (25), in their sights.