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Charles Piutau: ‘It’s no surprise to me that Ireland are the number one side’

Rugby World Cup: The Tonga and former Ulster fullback recounts his unique path to Saturday’s showdown with Ireland in Nantes

Charles Salesi Piutau looked out the hotel window at the shards of lightning that briefly illuminated a charcoal sky as a thunderstorm passed over Paris. There’s a temptation to use the elements as a metaphor to link nature’s force with a force of nature that will be let loose on Ireland at the Stade de la Beaujoire, but it seems a little overwrought, a misdirected pass at describing a generational talent.

Recognising Piutau’s ability doesn’t require any rugby knowledge, the acceleration, speed, footwork, strength, the athletic prowess and sleight of hand of a jongleur are prominent most match days, qualities that made him the world’s highest paid player with a yearly salary that kicked around the £1 million mark during his five seasons at the Bristol Bears.

The youngest of a family of 10 children born to Tongan parents in Auckland, his first break came in getting a place at Wesley College, Pukekohe, following in the footsteps of his rugby idol, Jonah Lomu. Piutau explained: “Every kid saw how big Jonah Lomu was at the school, his jersey in the diningroom, the photos of what he’d done, his athletics achievements on the honours board. It gave us the hope of professional rugby.”

In the 1989 school athletics championships, the winner of the 100m, 100m hurdles, 200m, 400m, discus, shot putt, javelin, long jump, high jump and triple jump was one J Lomu (aged 14). Piutau contented himself with emulating his hero by wearing the iconic number 11 jersey. “He [Lomu] was a massive influence.


“I met him a couple of times. He kind of knew who I was because of playing there [Wesley]. The thought of him recognising you or shaking your hand [was a thrill].”

An older brother, Siale, who went on to play professional and international rugby – he captained Tonga – as a centre, would have the biggest influence on his sibling, six years younger, by encouraging him to work hard and take nothing for granted with his talent. Piutau admitted that he occasionally got distracted.

Joining the Blues, it was hardly surprising that a wide-eyed Piutau marvelled at the feats first-hand of Joe Rokocoko and Rupeni Caucaunibuca but another idol was less obvious. “Growing up in New Zealand, Michael Jones [was a hero]. I was a bit too young to watch him on TV [live] but the things he stood for, how he played the game, his personality, his beliefs [inspired me].”

Faith, family and footie are three of four pillars on which he built his life, the last of which has prompted him to compile an extensive property portfolio in several countries including New Zealand, Australia and the UK. He explained: “Before rugby I wanted to be a builder, a carpenter, so I had all that set up but then rugby kicked off.

“Now I am thinking that my body is going to be a bit too sore when rugby is finished so maybe some project management. I have always loved things about property and houses.” He made his New Zealand debut against France in 2013 but, after 17 caps, was left out of the 2015 World Cup squad. At 25, he accepted an offer to join Ulster.

The original plan was to play a final season with the Blues but the NZ RFU blocked it and so he joined his brother Siale at Wasps on a short-term deal until he could move to Belfast. “Before I went to Ulster and Belfast, I knew nothing about the city and the club and to get there, and the experience I had, such an awesome home atmosphere at the Kingspan [was great].”

Piutau is on the record as saying that the welcome that he experienced and the way he was looked after was “the best of any club I’ve been at”. He smiled as he recalled the anthem Stand Up for the Ulstermen belted out prematch. “Being quite young and in my first time out of New Zealand, it was awesome to see club rugby and what it meant in the northern hemisphere. The players that I got to rub shoulders with, it is no surprise for me that the Irish are the number one side in the world.

“The talented guys there [Ulster], to see them develop, like Stuart McCloskey, has been awesome. To see him get more game time in this Irish team has been great, I think he is an awesome player.”

Do you keep in touch? “Yeah, just online, on social media, see each other’s stories or posts, the odd comment and stuff could go round there,” he smiled. Piutau won every award going in his two years in Belfast, adored by the supporters before a seven-figure contract and the chance to hook up with his brother Siale at Bristol proved too good to ignore.

Johnny Muldoon and Conor McPhillips were part of Pat Lam’s coaching staff, further exposing Piutau to an Irish influence. He said: “They were great guys. My experience of Irish guys in general, I think they are very similar to Tongans, very friendly, like to joke around, easy going.”

It’s an easy segue to Saturday’s game. What does he expect from Ireland? “Their set piece is very strong. They have a well-balanced team in terms of their forward pack, great carriers and strong defenders. In their backline they have someone at 9 and 10 that drives their team very well and then some backs, in midfield, in the wider channels with fire power.”

But for Tonga and Piutau they are more introverted in their focus. He never thought he’d get the chance to wear the famous red jersey of the Ikale Tahi. He knows how much it means to his family, to his team-mates and supporters worldwide.

“At the start of my rugby career in New Zealand I didn’t think that I would be putting on the Tongan jersey, knowing the eligibility rules at the time.

“Having this chance now, being in camp, it is just a sense of being grateful and wanting to make the most of this opportunity to be back on the international stage and testing your abilities against the best in the world. The excitement levels are sky high, and I can’t wait to get stuck into them.” Ireland know what’s coming.