‘I haven’t regretted it once’: Charles Piutau on leaving New Zealand to become a trailblazer in the English Premiership - (2021)
There are different types of legacy in rugby, says Charles Piutau, the man who carries the tag of the highest-paid player in the English Premiership. Not everyone can be a Jonah Lomu or a Richie McCaw, framed forever in the public consciousness as colossi clad in the all black of New Zealand and, in McCaw’s case, twice lifting the World Cup. If it all ended tomorrow for Piutau, his bequest would be as a trailblazer for young New Zealanders making it big in the powerhouse sporting economies this side of the world, with life-changing salaries to match.
Piutau left his native Auckland in 2015, at the age of 23, with 17 All Black Tests behind him, to take up £500,000-a-year contracts with Wasps and then Ulster, followed by a reputed £1.8million over two years to play for newly-promoted Bristol Bears in the Premiership, this season and next. McCaw had been his captain when Piutau played on the wing in the New Zealand team who beat England at Twickenham in November 2013. Thirteen of the starting 15 including Dan Carter and Kieran Read went on to share in the World Cup triumph over Australia at the same ground two years later. But Piutau was not selected (the other starter, Israel Dagg, was injured in 2015), so he sought his fortune overseas. It has led to many a ‘what if?’ question and, as an engaging interviewee at the training ground Bristol share with Clifton Rugby Club near the Severn Estuary, he calmly answers another: what if the New Zealand coach Steve Hansen made an emergency call for Piutau’s brilliant brand of forceful and elusive running for this year’s World Cup in Japan?
“Anything could happen,” Piutau says. “I am always open to what could happen in the future. But if you look at the natural factors, it will never happen. If I was to retire today, I’d say my legacy was showing that leaving New Zealand early, you can still make a career for yourself. I haven’t looked back and regretted it once.”
In striking similarities with Lomu – the late, great wing who transcended rugby and played in two World Cups without winning one – Piutau had Tongan heritage, an upbringing in South Auckland, a privileged finishing school at Wesley College, and a honing of their skills in New Zealand’s age-group and sevens systems. The chief practical difference was that Lomu made a global reputation at the World Cup in South Africa in 1995. As Piutau contemplates today’s trip to Exeter with his club, he says he is enjoying watching international rugby, as a fan. “There’s the brand the All Blacks are playing, and dominating as well – and it’s nice to see the likes of Ireland as well, and England challenging.”
‘Highest earner’ no longer
The “highest earner” tag may be about to pass, anyway, to Maro Itoje, the 24-year-old England lock who is rumoured to have extended his contract with Saracens. The salient fact is Itoje can play for club and country without leaving London. Piutau faced choices not of his making: New Zealand refuse to select overseas-based players, yet are unable to match their wages. He would have happily re-qualified for Tonga, if the rules allowed.
Piutau is the youngest of 10 children – five girls came first, followed by five boys – and until he was 12, he lived with an auntie nearby. His dad Manako, a some-time church minister, and mum Melenaite worked a variety of jobs to put him and his rugby-playing brothers through Wesley College.
“Every kid saw how big Jonah Lomu was at the school,” says Piutau.“His jersey in the dining room, the photos of what he’d done, his athletics achievements on the honours board. It gave us hope of professional rugby.”
Among the five brothers, they reckoned the second eldest was the most talented player but he is now a builder, the eldest is a police detective and Andy – the fourth brother between Siale, who has captained Tonga and is also at Bristol now, and Charles – is a pastor at the Breakthrough Church in Brisbane, Australia. A recent sermon of Andy’s, entitled “running the race”, gives a clue to the family philosophy: “Stop looking at the circumstances through which you are running, Focus on Him and see to it that He will finish what He has started in YOU!”
‘I am loving this environment’
Other key threads in Piutau’s story belong to Pat Lam – now Bristol’s head coach, but who was at Auckland Blues in 2012 when he gave Piutau his Super Rugby debut – and Steve Luatua, the Bristol captain and another ex-Auckland colleague whose brother is married to one of Piutau’s sisters.
Piutau was married last July and he has set himself goals, in rugby and in life. “We have agents and financial planners and good people around us,” he says. “If I didn’t have that plan, it could all go to waste. One easy example would be investing in property. I have a couple of residential properties in Auckland, and I’m looking to get more. It has opened my eyes, coming overseas. It gives you options.”
Incredibly, Piutau has already forced his way into the Premiership’s top 25 players for metres carried, defenders beaten and offloads this season despite missing the first six of the 11 rounds to date with a shoulder injury. Bristol are 10th out of 12, with a six-point gap to Worcester and Newcastle.
“Seeing what it means to the Bristol fans, and where the club has been, up and down, I am loving this environment,” Piutau says. “I want to look back and see I was part of the Bristol team solidifying it as a strong household name in the Premiership. We can create something that future generations can carry on. Exeter, where they are now, are an example. You see it internationally, with what the All Blacks have done. It would be great to see the same from a Bristol Bears perspective.”
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