Swapping All Blacks for Ulster – Charles Piutau has no regrets
The Kiwi missed out on winning the Rugby World Cup but has no regrets about it
Ulster’s Charles Piutau is tackled by Bordeaux-Begles’ Jean-Baptiste Dubie Mandatory during their Champions Cup clash last January. Photo: Inpho
Piutau hugs fellow Kiwi Isa Nacewa of Leinster after. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Piutau says the welfare of his family influenced his decision to move. Photo: Inpho
Charles Piutau grew up as the youngest of 10 siblings in Mangere, south Auckland, heavily influenced by his Tongan heritage. The suburb is home to many families from the Pacific Islands and was once the home to another son of industrious Tongan parents, the late great Jonah Lomu. In Maori culture there is a concept called “mana” that pervades Mangere, whether in church, school or at home. It denotes personal and collective pride, strength and identity. No man or woman is bigger than their community in a Tongan family. When you rise, you support your relatives along the way, as they have helped you in your development.
Two years ago, Piutau was an All Black who made a decision that some of his compatriots struggled to understand. At the age of 23 he was recognised regularly on the streets on Auckland as a rising star for his provincial and international teams. To the surprise of rugby fans in New Zealand, Piutau decided to postpone his international career and sign for Ulster. An All Black must play their club rugby in New Zealand and Piutau was swapping the fabled black jersey for the white of Ulster.
Piutau had won 14 caps for his country when an unexpected offer arrived from Ulster in early 2015. He hadn’t thought beyond playing his next game in the black jersey and didn’t know much about the province or its rugby team. “An offer came through from Ulster via my agent and it made me think. I had never thought of going overseas, but I asked my agent for some time to think. Two weeks passed and I thought long-term. Rugby is a short-lived career, would I have the chance to live outside New Zealand again? We’re so lucky as players to travel the world and do something we love. I thought: why not.”
The chance to see another part of the world came with a lucrative offer to play the game he loves. Piutau regards his family as his top priority and knows his parents sacrificed a lot to give him and his siblings ample opportunities in New Zealand. “I’m the same as any islander boy, be they from a Samoan or Tongan background. We have our parents to thank for what they did to get us here. We’re the fruits of their labours and it is important that we pay back what they did for us with our talents.”
The young Piutau received a family rugby education in his back garden in tandem with more formal teaching in the Auckland Blues’ academy. He earned his first international cap at the age of 22, achieving a dream he once barely thought was possible. “In Tonga, the All Blacks is just such a huge thing. People know all about the players. You see little kids in the jerseys, and if someone from that background gets to make it all the way, it’s even better. Playing for the All Blacks was a dream, a dream I could barely once imagine. Even when I was running out for my first game, man, I was physically pinching myself, going snap out of it, you’ve arrived.”
Piutau is not alone in wrestling with this complex kiwi rugby conundrum. Do you continue to live out your international dreams or give back to the community that helped you achieve them in the first place? Steven Luatua, a gifted loose forward All Black and former team-mate of Piutau’s at Auckland, recently signed for Bristol, who are bottom of the Premiership and in danger of being relegated into the English second tier. His decision disappointed All Blacks coach Steve Hansen but the player thought it was important to put his family’s financial future before his own international career.
“It’s been on the table for the best part of a couple of months,” he told the New Zealand Herald. “A lot of sleepless nights, a lot of U-turns here and there, but I’m glad in the end I made the best decision for me and my family. I can secure the future for my family. That’s a big pull, to give back. My family don’t expect much. They know I do what I do and that I give back when I can but in this way I can actually make a difference.”
After sleepless nights of his own in Auckland, Piutau decided to experience a new lifestyle in Belfast. Ulster’s foreign allocation for the 2015-16 season was full so Piutau spent the campaign at Wasps, where he made it into the Premiership team of the year. Once Piutau signed for Ulster, friends and acquaintances started asking him if he knew anything about the Titanic city. “I honestly knew nothing about the history, then started doing my own research on Belfast and I heard different opinions but here in Belfast it’s now home for the moment. There are definitely similarities to New Zealand: people will always come and say ‘hi’, it’s incredibly friendly and it’s a place that truly loves rugby. It took me a month to settle in, but after that I couldn’t speak highly enough of the city.”
In Belfast, Piutau has been playing in a team that has been frequently short of confidence and results. The crowds at Ravenhill noticeably sit up when he touches the ball, hoping he can provide a spark of brilliance to light up dreary winter nights. His fast feet and strength enable him to cut through even the most stubborn defences. He has made an impression on the Ulster fans and he has appreciated their warmth and wit throughout the season.
Ulster are out of Europe but they are slowly improving in the Pro12 competition and are back to winning ways. “Rugby I always see as a rollercoaster, it’s always up and down. Things like these results this build your character, we understand that there are lessons to learn now, and they will stand to next season and hopefully we can bring some silverware to the fans.”
Far from New Zealand, Piutau thinks of the young boy he used to be, sitting in his Auckland boarding school dorm studying his rugby heroes intently. He missed out on early representative sides and forced himself to work harder on and off the field. He believes he has a responsibility to inspire the younger generation of fans in Ulster. “As a kid, I always had these heroes in rugby. Man, I used to study them so much and to get an autograph or something? That meant a lot. That’s why now for me playing this game I love, it’s important to always make time for the kids who come to watch as I was once the same, I want them to get inspired like I did.”
Piutau is living happily in the Titanic quarter of Belfast, where the famous ship set off on an adventure around the world. He considers his adopted city the friendliest place he has ever lived and has made friends easily. He is many miles from the long grey cloud, but increasingly happy in Northern Ireland. He doesn’t know what the future for his rugby career will hold just yet, he only lives in the present. He understands that his rugby career is a short one, and is trying to enjoy every moment. His only concern this week is getting a precious win for Ulster against Treviso, and finding his way to the local coffee shop that replicates the perfect flat whites he loved in Auckland.
At times, Piutau looks at the lush green hills of Craigantlet not far from his apartment and it reminds him of his homeland. Piutau is thousands of miles away from his family but they are never far from his mind every time he puts on the white jersey of Ulster.