It has been a dream harboured for years but one he feared would never be realised. Today the former All Black was selected for Tonga. We headed to Bristol to gauge the full-back’s excitement levels…
The Big Charles Piutau Interview
As Daddy rips off yet another growling face, behind the camera little Grace cannot help but clap away. Something is going on. She’s not quite sure what but she’s loving it.
In fact, fittingly, it’s a family affair here. Wife Lineti watches on while Charles Piutau gets his photo taken with the flag of Tonga, having just relinquished his grasp on a team jersey. Only eldest son Zion isn’t in the room, as he naps upstairs.
That family feel is the reason we are in Bristol: to discuss the desire to represent your heritage and one day pull on a shirt you feared you might never get the chance to wear.
Piutau is an All Black. In 2013 he made his full Test debut against France in New Plymouth, coming off the bench for Rene Ranger in a 24-9 triumph. He would tot up a further 16 caps between then and July 2015. Then he left for Europe.
But Auckland-born Piutau also represented Tonga U20 in 2010, before switching to black the year after for U20s, then sevens. His parents are from Tonga, and older brother Siale has 43 caps for the ‘Ikale Tahi. And through recent years he has openly talked of his yearning to pull on the red jersey. Still just 30, the Bristol Bears full-back feels he has plenty to offer on the Test stage and he knows the Pacific nation could use his quicksilver footwork. However, before now, the only chance Piutau had to make the big international switch was via the Olympic Sevens qualification route. And as he explains: “I always knew that was going to be tough because the dates those tournaments become available are usually full-on with club rugby commitments.”
Then everything changed. In January an amendment came into effect that meant a previously capped player could transfer to one other national union providing they could “demonstrate a close and credible link to that union via birthright” and hadn’t played a Test match in 36 months. Piutau’s lane to Tongan representation has opened up. And now, he has been named in the Tonga side to face Fiji this weekend.
“I never thought that would come to pass,” Piutau says, earnestly. “Like, there had always been talk of it and it would never happen. So for that to finally come through definitely caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to pass but yeah, I was definitely pretty happy in finding out that happened! And then it was realising that the opportunity for me to play for Tonga had now become real.”
To put Piutau’s shock into perspective, some players had already taken the opportunity to action the Olympic loophole to make themselves Tongan eligible. Fellow All Black Malakai Fekitoa and former Wallaby back-five forward Lopeti Timani played in a three-day sevens qualifier event in Monaco to earn their way into red.
However, that event was on the exact same weekend as Piutau’s Bristol were playing in a Premiership semi-final against Harlequins. Not only did the Bears succumb to one of the most remarkable comebacks in the league’s history on the Saturday, but Piutau suffered a brain injury too, meaning any baseless talk of jetting out for a cameo for Tonga on Sunday went up in a puff of meh anyway. That said, it still made for one soggy cornflake of a weekend.
Piutau goes on: “I remember talking to (Tonga coach) Toutai Kefu and he was saying, ‘This is the last opportunity to qualify.’ It was tough. I knew I was at risk and to be honest, if it wasn’t meant to happen I knew what I was giving up – I was in this semi-final and I had to commit to my club.
“Losing to Harlequins was gutting. And I think I had accepted that week that the opportunity with Tonga was probably not going to happen, with me committing to Bristol. So I had come to terms with it. Maybe there was a little bit of hope, because I saw talk of eligibility changing, but you couldn’t put any money on that coming to pass.
“I’m close with Malakai so there was chat about the tournament coming up. As it got closer and dates were unfolding, we knew we were likely to be in the top four. Malakai knew he was likely to be available to play for Tonga because Wasps wouldn’t have any rugby to play, but there was a bit of a cloud over it for me.”
Maybe there’s a little sense of sprinting and catching the bus just before it pulls away from the stop about this. Whenever Piutau talks of the opportunity being realised now, there’s a smile that possibly supports some sense of relief. Look at the athletes who could now jump on that bus and you understand why Tonga fans are more prone to positivity.
As well as Piutau and the controversial Israel Folau, a whole strata of stars could follow suit later in the year too.
So does Piutau ever regret pulling on that black jersey? “Never. I was born in New Zealand. I grew up, like every other kid, wanting to be an All Black. That was the dream because that’s all I knew. I went to school and me and my friends had watched TV, seen the black jersey and haka.
“When the opportunity came to play for Tonga U20, I knew that was probably the one chance I had before the eligibility rules at the time kicked in, meaning I had to choose. Then when I played sevens for New Zealand, I had to decide for myself. ‘Okay, I want to commit to New Zealand’.
“But now I have come away from New Zealand and played rugby in the UK for a bit. My brother Siale had played for Tonga, and at Wasps it was the first time I had ever been on the same team…” He tails off here but the match-up with family obviously had an impact on him. Shared values too.
The pair had faced each other before, back in New Zealand in the ITM Cup, with Charles at Auckland and big bro at Counties Manukau. “He got a shot on me!” Charles laughs. “But that was a funny game. It was awesome. My family was watching both of us and he’s the older brother, by six years, so I’m always the one trying to give it everything. He’s the one probably going a bit more easy on me!”
When pressed on whether the new eligibility laws could also be used to bolster current big guns – if, say, a talented Fijian who hasn’t played Tests for a few years begins ripping Super Rugby to shreds and is also capable of switching – the playmaker gives it the benefit of quick consideration.
“The first thing for me is that it gives a good opportunity for a player to represent both of their heritages or countries they can play for. In terms of teams and how they benefit, the biggest benefit is always going to be the Tier Two nations. The All Blacks can’t get much better and they have this big pool of talent they will try to secure first (before looking for switches). Will it happen? Maybe. But it comes back to the player. If they eventually want to represent a New Zealand or an Australia and they can, for me as a player I’d say, ‘Why not?’ I never want to take away opportunities.
“For fans and other people, they may have a different perspective but I’ve grown up with New Zealand and Tonga as the two countries close to me, and for me the best thing I could do is represent both of them.
“We’re at the start of this and there will be teething problems. With the previous eligibility law, when you could only choose one, that became the normal one and people became so fixed on it. But in ten years’ time, when the next generation grow up, they know they can play for ‘this’ and ‘this’. I think rugby league has been the perfect example.”
What he is eluding to is when Mate Ma’a Tonga rocked the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, defeating New Zealand as they thundered towards a semi-final. At the heart of their success was a core of NRL stars who took advantage of an opportunity to switch national allegiances having repped other nations, like Jason Taumalolo, a former NZ star.
But, we counter, between World Cups, international league isn’t exactly setting the globe alight. In union, as we know, Test matches are massive business every single year. Surely it is important for teams like Tonga and Samoa to benefit from sponsorship and investments long-term, that big-name switchers don’t come in for World Cups and disappear again?
“I think part of it is playing in World Cups, getting a better place in the world rankings. It’s about trying to become a ‘Tier One nation’. Then it’s playing New Zealand and Australia (more often) and players will want to play outside of World Cups, because you’re playing decent teams and hopefully have the opportunity to play matches at home.”
Having structure around it will help, he adds. But there is still the matter of qualification for 2023 to address first. Piutau is playing this weekend and is burning to be involved when Tonga take on South Korea or Hong Kong in late July, for the Asia/ Pacific One spot in Pool B, alongside South Africa, Ireland and Scotland.
As for his on-field aspirations, Piutau wants to show the world he still poses real danger at Test level. We have seen his hot-stepping best and what he has learnt over his whole career, he says, is that you have to become a sponge. Learn from the excitement-makers. He has always marvelled at the work Benji Marshall did in league, the Joe Rokocoko spin, the swerves Rupeni Caucaunibuca and Christian Cullen used.
It’s not about hard-out imitation of every twitch on the training paddock. Rather, he has typically worked at what he has seen without attempting pure facsimile, carrying an idea of what it looks like in his head and seeing what his body can do as he tries to pull off the moves over and over. He observes. He looks at how certain players move, change direction, how they use their head or sell their eyes, what are both legs doing, will one wobble before they step? But he won’t slow things right down and deconstruct every millisecond of good evasion. You have to make something your own eventually. You just have to give it a go.
Which brings us to an interesting idea. He wants to bring the razzle-dazzle. Always. But it could feel even sweeter if his play can help create space and time for new stars to emerge, young Tongan stars the world doesn’t know yet.
“I’ve come to learn the balance of both,” Piutau begins. “I still need that X-factor and razzle as part of my game, but at the same time I’ve matured and learnt I can’t do everything on my own. One guy on the team can help get you so far, but it’s being able to play well as a team rather than an individual that will get the result. It’s being able to facilitate the guys around me and being able to create a line break or something.
“I definitely hope to pass something on to someone younger coming through. Even if it’s just one small thing, you hope that person knows you’ve helped them in some sort of way.
“Coming into the Tonga programme, there have been glimpses of some wonderful things and wonderful players who have worn the jersey. I just think it’s exciting, to hopefully put on this jersey and leave it in a better place.”
These big stars switching over can serve as much as ambassadors as they do as athletes. Piutau has not pulled on the shirt yet – which is why you will notice that he doesn’t wear it in any of our photos, as he makes clear he has not earnt it yet. But the respect for it is clearly evident. As is the hope for a new generation of island kids yet to bust out. He also brings up the youngsters at Bristol he feels he has helped along the way, like the fleet-footed Ioan Lloyd.
On Bristol, Piutau holds his hands up. It was a perplexing season. As he tells us, “If we knew what the problem was, we’d have fixed it,” but there is no denying it has been a comedown since last year’s run. But he adds: “The experiences that we have taken this year can really propel us for next season. There have been a lot of games that we lost in the last few minutes. No one likes going through tough times to get there. But I think you’d look at any successful team and there’s a time like that. Hopefully this is just our time of struggle.”
With player swaps next season and a fresh approach, Bristol will hope their fortunes evolve. Change has to be embraced. They need a shake-up, as does Test rugby.
As we clear up and prepare to leave, Lineti generously loads us up with snacks. And for a moment the Piutau family look at the jersey, a world of possibility stitched into it.
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