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Page last updated at 07:26 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 08:26 UK

Hape shaping up to make his mark

Shontayne Hape

By Charlie Henderson

Shontayne Hape has hailed Bath boss Steve Meehan in helping his successful acclimatisation into rugby union.

The 27-year-old is set to cap his first season in the sport with a Premiership play-off appearance against Leicester, after just 14 first-team starts.

"Lots of previous converts were thrown straight in which is probably why Steve was cautious," Hape told BBC Sport.

"They took the right approach with me and that's one of the main reasons why I'm benefitting from it now."

Hape has navigated his way along a steep learning curve since moving to Bath from Bradford Bulls.

And almost a year on there are still lessons to be learned at unexpected times. Take the Wasps game at the start of April for example.

Hape zeroed in on Danny Cipriani's kick-off under lights at the Rec and proved that while he has got to grips with a number of rules he did not know when he moved south, there are still some grey areas.

Any sort of convert always takes a bit of time to get used to the patterns of the game but in the last couple of games he's really started to show what he's capable of

Phil de Glanville

"They put the ball up from the kick-off, I went to catch it in the 22 and yelled out mark," he revealed.

"Obviously I now know you can't do that, but I fooled a couple of boys on my team and even some of their players stopped and thought 'What's going on?'."

It is in his nature to wrong foot people though, not least ardent union fans who questioned Bath's wisdom in acquiring a league player with suspect knees when so many other converts have flattered to deceive in the recent past.

But they underestimated Hape's steely ambition and sunny optimism, never mind the resolve and determination that saw him come back from three serious knee injuries in his previous sporting guise.

Not that Meehan's softly, softly approach was a particularly easy one for a man of buzzing impatience.

Having spent a life in league winning everything bar the World Cup with New Zealand, the Bulls and New Zealand Warriors, playing for the reserves and warming benches was a shock to the system.

However, deep down he knew that had to be the way if he was going to be a success.

He knew because he had spoken to good friends and fellow converts Lesley Vainikolo and Henry Paul.

Shontayne Hape in a New Zealand rugby league training session
Born: 30 January 1982
Clubs: New Zealand Warriors (1999-2002); Bradford Bulls (2003-08); Bath (2008-present)
Sustained major knee injuries in 2002, 2004 & 2007
Hape played 14 RL Tests for New Zealand, scoring 14 tries
Won two Super League titles, a Challenge Cup and a World Club Cup at the Bulls
Bulls team-mate James Lowes is credited with giving him the nickname "Champagne" while another favourite for the part-time DJ is DJ Shape
He passed his residency test with "flying colours" and is awaiting his UK citizenship
The tattoo signifies strength and is from his Maori Ngapuhi tribe

And he knew because he had heard the story of Chev Walker, who came straight from a league term into a union campaign at Bath, failed to settle and was back in the north after a single sorry season.

As well as Walker, there was also the ghost of Olly Barkley to deal with in the recesses of the Rec as the England international was the man he was to all intents and purposes replacing.

With that in mind, Hape, who wanted to escape his league "comfort zone", bought himself out of his Bulls contract and sacrificed a place in the play-offs to get a pre-season under his belt having signed off for his former employees with his 85th try in his 136th game last June.

"Talking to guys like Les and Henry steered me in the right direction and helped and their main advice was to learn off everyone - players and coaches. Anyone," added Hape.

"But I felt pressure because you have to be accepted when you come from another sport, and especially rugby league.

"There's a rivalry, the supporters sort of look down on rugby league and for someone coming from outside it took a while.

"And there was another big pressure thing about who was taking Olly's place and I had that sort of hanging over my head."

There were mumblings and grumblings as the big-name recruit stayed in the background, but Meehan's masterplan has borne fruit and instead of floundering, Hape has flourished.

After dipping his toe in the waters of the game in autumn's EDF group stages, Hape has really made a splash in the spring.

He has played 80 minutes in each of the last six games and starred with a try-making burst in the Heineken Cup quarter-final at Leicester before crossing for a vital score next time out at Newcastle.

The mark incident aside, things are beginning to take shape to the extent that scrum-half Michael Claassens tipped his team-mate for England duty after an "awesome" display at the Falcons and the "character" he has shown in his acclimatisation to the game.

"A lot of things are taking care of themselves now, like rucks and knowing when to come in and lines to take. They're almost similar but they're not the same," added Hape, who will qualify to play for England later in the year when his citizenship is rubber stamped.

"But it's been good and in the last two months I've really got the hang of things and I've been getting regular games.

Charlie Henderson - BBC Sport

"If you play to the best of your ability at club level and you get noticed elsewhere these things (playing for England) will come along. It's not something I'm looking at now but if it comes it comes."

Former England captain and Bath centre Phil de Glanville told BBC Sport: "Any sort of convert always takes a bit of time to get used to the patterns of the game but in the last couple of games he's really started to show what he's capable of.

"He's obviously got great individual skills around his handling and passing which was a big strength of his in rugby league, he's settled in very well and Bath are delighted with the progress he's shown."

Delighted to such an extent that Hape was named Most Improved Player at the club's recent awards night, a reward that left him as proud as he was of any of the prizes that came his way in league.

But just when you think you have got the game half nailed, along comes Barkley. Not the ghost this time, but the real deal after re-signing for Bath after a season at Gloucester.

Hape is unphased and like all the challenges that have come before he is ready and willing to embrace this one. It is a learning experience after all.

"Olly's an international player, a great goalkicker and a proven player and just having him back in our team will bring out the best in all the people that play around him," he said.

"And maybe we could play together. It will be a good battle for spots which can only improve the team with everyone fighting for positions. It keeps you on your toes and it's a great chance for me to learn even more."

But like England, that's something for another day. Today the only focus is Leicester.

Meehan looks ahead to Leicester challenge

Hape is not a fan of the play-offs and would prefer to see the season determined by an old-fashioned league or a system more akin to rugby league.

But fairness does not come into it as things stand and after sacrificing a play-off place with the Bulls Hape is out to help Bath make the most of their fourth-placed league finish at a Leicester side he has got to know well during his brief union career.

Of those 14 games, three came against the Tigers and he has been on the losing side each time.

The first was his debut, the second a first away league match in which Bath threw away a healthy lead and the third was in that Heineken Cup match when Julien Dupuy's late try ruined his first start in Europe.

"They're a bit of a bogey team pulling something out at the last minute and that try sort of broke our hearts," he said.

"We're hoping we can turn the screws this time but every Bath v Leicester game goes right to the wire and there'll probably be no difference this time"

Beating Leicester is Hape's next lesson.

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see also
Leicester v Bath (Sat)
08 May 09 |  English
Leicester 20-15 Bath
11 Apr 09 |  Rugby Union
Bath 22-14 Wasps
01 Apr 09 |  English
Hape promises there is more to come
13 Mar 09 |  Rugby Union
Leicester 24-22 Bath
04 Jan 09 |  English
Bath 25-21 Leicester
15 Nov 08 |  English
Bath 15-19 Leicester
04 Oct 08 |  Rugby Union
Hape switches codes to join Bath
27 May 08 |  Bath
Bath swoop for league star Walker
06 Jun 06 |  English
Hape is mixing with the best
23 Oct 07 |  Rugby League

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