He returns to the Gallagher Premiership with a hefty price tag, but Charles Piutau just wants to entertain at Bristol Bears. This first appeared in the September 2018 issue of Rugby World.
Mid-answer, Charles Piutau’s head is wobbling as he jerks in his chair, trying to explain how he developed his fast feet.
“I have always seen footwork as a strength of mine, trying to beat defenders and get away from them,” says the Bristol Bears’ headliner new signing, the versatile back with 17 All Black caps to his name. “Hopefully I’ll create something out of nothing. I work on it. Growing up it was a thing where you just try to step someone…”
And here the wobbling goes into overdrive. Hold up, hold up, we need you to explain what you mean here.“Well… you play touch rugby a lot and you’ll try the jump-step, you’ll pop up and the body loosens up a bit at the leg and then it wiggles and you step…”
He goes through the full gamut of actions, without ever leaving his seat. Finally he concedes: “It’s more a backyard footy thing, right, messing around with mates in general or at the park. As a kid growing up you just try it out, whereas now as a professional you work on your agility and speed, in the gym… but you want it to come naturally. It’s exactly like that messing around when you get on well with team-mates.”
Entertainment will be high on the agenda of many neutrals as the former Wasp returns to the Premiership. It was a shock to many when Piutau eschewed All Blacks life in 2015 to sign a contract with Ulster, at just 23. He was released well ahead of his big 2016 move to Northern Ireland and filled in the interim with Wasps, electrifying the top English league during his short stint.
Now 26, he left Ulster for Bristol at a time of great intrigue. Bankrolled by mega-wealthy Steve Lansdown, the side recently (and for some, controversially) rebranded to become the Bears. In a column for Rugby World, respected head coach Pat Lam also explained that the newly-promoted club want to become synonymous with the sharp end of Champions Cup rugby.
Amidst all of this, much chat about Piutau’s big move has been about the war chest used to acquire his services – many believe him to be the best-paid player in England, which is one of the reasons he finds himself on our list.
With great pay packets comes great responsibility, you would imagine.
Piutau gives his view. “You can get to a place where you think, ‘Man, I have to play up to whatever amount I’m being paid, you have to live up to that.’
“But I know that if I try to train or play up to that place, I am not going to perform well. That’s the wrong mindset.
“I just want to do everything I can to perform for my team-mates and my club. Through that way of thinking, everything else will look after itself.”
So what if someone says to you, ‘Hey, wait a second, you’re the highest-paid player in England, aren’t you?’
“I’ll just say ‘That’s that’. I love what I do and I want to be the best I can. I’ll go and do what I enjoy the most and if that’s razzling, I love doing that out there, getting the ball in my hands. Why not?”
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That’s some one-job-at-a-time thinking at first but then there’s a smile in the eyes as the caveat is added on – the promise of flashing feet to come. It’s also a confident response to a question that is likely to recur at the start of Piutau’s stay in the West Country.
Confidence is something the full-back has had to dig for. See, he’s worked with coach Lam before, with the veteran giving the kid his first two games in Super Rugby before Lam was out the door at Auckland Blues.
Despite the almost accursed recent history of the Blues, the Auckland area – where Piutau, the youngest of ten children, was born – has produced many incredible athletes. Young Charles struggled to make his mark at first. He missed a few age-grade sides, before making the national U18s. Then he struggled to hold down a regular place in the ITM Cup. It took time away with New Zealand Sevens to give him a jolt of belief, with the fabled Sir Gordon Tietjens telling him to back himself whenever he got the ball in his hands.
By the time Lam called for the cavalry at the end of his last Super Rugby season, Piutau was buzzing. He felt instantly comfortable at the level and was Man of the Match first out. With two outings at the end of a pig of a Blues season, Piutau laughs: “I was unbeaten!”
It’s hard to imagine that a player with such frightening attacking talents could ever be out of coaches’ minds. Confidence is a tricky thing to pin down though.
“A bit is being a Pacific Islander, you can be timid or shy,” says Piutau, the son of Tongan immigrants. “And so it’s about being comfortable with my own ability and expressing myself, feeling like I could do that in any environment. For me it was a two- to three-year period where I wasn’t doing that. Then when I got a taste in the sevens and got confidence to back myself, I looked back and thought, ‘Man, I’m wasting time!’ I was holding myself back, not expressing myself.”
Having won a Junior World Cup as he scored freely for the Baby Blacks, then won a World Sevens Series with Tietjens, it seemed to make sense that Piutau would become an All Black. But having become a regular winger for New Zealand after an initial period shuffling around the back-line, Piutau made his decision to move abroad. Plenty of Kiwis could not fathom why he would make such a call at just 23.
Layers of thought present themselves as he says: “My faith has always been a big thing, growing up as a Pacific Island kid. My parents always took us to church and taught us these values and to have a relationship with God. So I’ve made a lot of my rugby decisions being aware of that but also of my family, as well as the people around me.
“Being an All Black I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome!’ You grow up wanting to put on that jersey. Then I was playing for a few seasons and the World Cup was coming. I was thinking about playing in that and wanted nothing else.
“But rugby is a short career and these factors start coming in. You start looking at your family, and where they have come from as well. My parents migrated from Tonga to New Zealand to give us all a better opportunity, and then it comes down to me and part of it is wanting to maximise my career.
“I was thinking about all of these factors. As the opportunity became more and more of a genuine option, I thought I may as well give it a crack.
“I’ve enjoyed it and I don’t regret anything. There’s a bit of being an adult about it too. Growing up I was quite ‘young’ and I wanted to find my own feet. Being the youngest of ten I’ve always been protected and looked after.
“And for my family, it was a big decision. ‘Oh wow, he’s looking to go to the other side of the world.’ That was the hardest thing. We can talk about how tough it was to not play for the All Blacks, but leaving the family I’ve grown up with, lived with all my life – it was all I knew – to go away, that was a big step. I feel like I’ve been able to grow up.”
So many of us strive to feel like that for a lot of our adult lives. We won’t all need separation to do it, sure. But on the other hand, as Piutau gets familiar with his new Bristolian surroundings, he now has every chance to grow further.
It may help that Piutau’s older brother Siale is also at the club, but the pair playing for the same side has never happened purely by design. Though there is another side Charles would like to play for alongside his brother.
There has been talk in recent months about the former All Black finding a way of switching allegiance to represent Tonga. A complicated undertaking that would involve playing in Olympic qualifier events with Tonga Sevens – something hard to do with the team not a core side on the World Series. It looks very unlikely to happen before we get to the 2019 World Cup. But time is on his side and if he does it, we believe, it will prove an influential move.
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“If it ever comes then I’d be more than happy to represent Tonga,” Piutau tells us. “It’s my heritage, my culture.
“But with international rugby you work together with your club and your international team. We need to think about what’s best for everyone. In the perfect world, if everyone is happy then we will go through all that.
“Playing for the family is one thing. The other thing is playing in a World Cup; I haven’t done it. There is part of me that still wants to taste that level of rugby. I definitely have a desire to pull on that red jersey and represent Tonga, more so if I do it alongside my brother, but if not together I’d still want to play.
“My parents would definitely be very emotional, proud and excited if that phone call ever came to tell them I’m in.”
Right now, though, Piutau’s full focus is on the ‘transition’ needed to become a prosperous Bear. If there’s a Lam-led revolution afoot, the league newbies have a hot-stepper ready to roll. But what should the club’s approach be now: go right for Lam’s Champions Cup place target or survive season one?
“You’ve got to have a goal of winning,” Piutau insists. “You can’t think in survival mode. If I feel like that it’s almost like settling. Shoot for the stars and if you fall, hopefully it’s not to the bottom and you still survive!
“Like Pat has said, you have that drive and that boldness – you back yourself to be amongst the best in the Prem and in Europe.”
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