THE man who turned his back on New Zealand to play for his native Western Samoa in the Hongkong Sevens is ready to turn his back on rugby - for God.
Lolani Koko, who was named in New Zealand's 10-strong squad for Hongkong but pulled out to play for his home country, is hoping to enter theological college this year and train to become a church minister in Samoa.
And the 29-year-old forward said it may mean the end of his rugby career - but it is a sacrifice he is prepared to make.
Koko, who is representing the powerful Samoans in his eighth Hongkong Sevens, plays his club rugby in New Zealand but has already told the Wellington selectors he is unavailable for the forthcoming season.
Koko said: ''I will be sitting my entrance exam at the end of August and the rugby training clashes with my Bible study class.
''The work is very hard because we have to study four books - two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament.
''But I have had the call from God and the feeling is getting stronger and stronger.
''My studies must come first and then I hope to go to theological college in Malua for a three or four-year course.'' Koko, who was voted Wellington's player of the year last season, has stunned rugby officials with his decision, which could mean the end of his career.
''At the moment the college policy does not allow people to play rugby,'' he added.
''I am not sure if the policy will change next year but, if it doesn't, I would be prepared to follow it and give up rugby.
''I decided I wanted to do this towards the end of last year. It is a feeling, like a call from God. I like playing rugby but when the call gets stronger and stronger inside me I can easily put rugby beside me.'' Koko, who is married with two children, has lived in New Zealand for eight years and is a postman in Wellington. He is a member of the Samoan Congregational Christian Church and hopes to become a minister in Samoa after the course.
''When I made my decision I sat down with my wife and talked about it. She did not expect my decision but when I started feeling the call she was very supportive.'' Koko said that while his rugby future was uncertain, he would be playing for Samoa in the first World Cup Sevens in Scotland next month.
The softly-spoken Samoan was a latecomer to rugby. He played football until he was 19 but changed sports after a knee injury.
New Zealand selectors picked Koko in their 10-strong squad after he impressed in the national championships at Palmerston North.
A few days later he pulled out, though, and joined the Samoans.
''I have no comment to make about the switch,'' he said. ''That is between the New Zealand and Samoan rugby unions. All I can say is that it was my decision.'' Koko's Sevens preparations have been unsettled by a leg infection, picked up playing in Australia, but he hopes to be ready to play tomorrow despite medical opinion advising continued rest.