Charles Piutau on choosing Ulster over winning the World Cup
The 25-year-old will become the highest paid player in the world when he moves to Bristol
Ulster’s Charles Piutau carries during their Pro14 clash with Dragons at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
“I really had to see the bigger picture,” Charles Piutau says as he considers the wrench of abandoning his Test career with the All Blacks to play for Ulster and, from next season, Bristol. Piutau, a dynamic full-back who can also play on the wing, will become the world’s most highly-paid rugby player when he joins Bristol. Yet his motives are more than mercenary and reflect his arduous childhood as well as the growing problems for Test rugby.
“When I was in New Zealand it felt like the All Blacks were everything. It felt like you were going to play forever. You felt invincible. But, taking a step back, you realise it’s such a short career. For me, what really hit home was remembering everything my parents had done for me and my siblings. They left Tonga for New Zealand to give us better opportunities. And for me, coming here, I had the same chance to do something similar for my family.”
Piutau is the youngest of 10 children who grew up in the tough Auckland suburb of Mangere. Five girls were born before, in a matching rush, five boys followed. Piutau and his four brothers “lived in the garage. We had three beds and a couple of bunk beds. I guess they were hard times but it never felt like that. It speaks volumes for my parents that I never thought ‘I’m still hungry’ or ‘I need clothes.’ But you look back at 12 people needing to be fed and you think: ‘How did they do it?’ I just take the positives – the love they showed and the discipline they taught us.”
On an unusually sunny day in Belfast, at the gleaming Ulster fortress of the Kingspan Stadium, Piutau is in an expansive mood after signing a contract to join Bristol next season. It is a two-year deal, earning Piutau £1m a season, which has been described as “sensational” and one to send “shockwaves” through world rugby because the 25-year-old should be at the peak of his Test career.
Bristol currently play in the Championship against teams like Hartpury College and Rotherham Titans. It’s a long way from Test rugby and Piutau will join Bristol even in the unlikely event they are not promoted. But they are bankrolled by their billionaire owner Stephen Lansdown and Bristol will probably swagger into the Premiership and unleash Piutau – the Pro12 Players’ Player of the Year for his thunderous exploits in an Ulster shirt last season.
His huge deal with Bristol could represent a lasting sea-change – with players choosing lucrative club contracts over a Test career – as it has been accompanied by troubling introspection for international rugby. Australia and Argentina are frail imitations of their usual Test-match selves – with the Wallabies struggling to draw a crowd of 14,000 for their most recent home match and the Pumas losing 13 of their past 15 Tests. South Africa, who are New Zealand’s greatest rivals, were humiliated 57-0 by the All Blacks earlier this month. The gap between New Zealand and the rest appears significant – even if England, while winning 19 of their last 20 Tests, have not faced the world champions for three years.
Piutau made his All Black debut in June 2013, against France, and won his 17th and last cap against a combative Springbok side in July 2015. Those memories light up his face and suggest that, despite his obvious happiness playing for Ulster, he still misses Test rugby.
You miss it. But I’ve become an All Black fan now. I just cheer them on
“I only played the last 10 minutes against France but I was so happy. You dream about that moment for so long – and so it felt surreal. At the same time it felt right and amazing. And then my last Test at Ellis Park was very tough. So I have great memories and I was lucky enough to have a perfect record. Played 17, won 17.”
Surely Piutau still feels a little ache when thinking of the All Blacks? “It was more like that when you first come over and you’re looking back: ‘Oh man, how nice it was playing in that jersey.’ You miss it. But I’ve become an All Black fan now. I just cheer them on. You see guys you played alongside that are still doing well in the jersey and you’re happy for them.”
Did he follow the compelling series between New Zealand and the Lions? “I was in Auckland for the first Test,” he says enthusiastically. “I saw the other two games on TV but it meant so much to see that first Test at Eden Park because I played there for the Blues. It was awesome.”
In swapping a black Test jersey for Ulster’s white shirt, Piutau suffered the disappointment of exclusion from New Zealand’s 2015 World Cup squad. He could have kept his decision a secret but he announced in March 2015 that he would be joining Ulster 16 months later. The All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, was reputedly angry and the NZRFU were intransigent.
“That was the hardest point in my career so far,” Piutau says. “It was another dream to play in a World Cup – and falling short was tough. But the Ulster offer came out of the blue. I was counting on my agent agreeing a contract with New Zealand and he had to tell me about Ulster the night before we were meant to finalise things. I was like: ‘You’ve got to give me two weeks to think about this.’ I wasn’t thinking of coming overseas.”
Once he was axed from Hansen’s squad the NZRFU refused to endorse an extension of Piutau’s contract with the Blues. He faced seven months outside of rugby and was relieved to be offered a short-term deal in England. He did well at Wasps, alongside his brother Siale, with whom he will be reunited at Bristol, and made the Premiership team of the 2015-16 season.
“London is a big, busy city,” Piutau says, “but I prefer Belfast. During my first few weeks in London I’d be walking around smiling at people and they look at you like you’re weird. But in Belfast you’ve got people stopping and chatting to you, laughing and joking around. It took a while to get the accent but now, when my family come over, I’m almost translating.”
Piutau laughs before underlining his rapturous reception at Ulster. “The club have really welcomed me. I remember my first game against Dragons – running out and hearing the crowd singing the Ulster song and the band playing and everyone cheering me. Even the quietness before kicks stood out. In the southern hemisphere you get abused. So it’s been very special.”
Does the southern hemisphere’s disparaging attitude towards rugby in the north continue? “Definitely. I was the same. I was oblivious to northern hemisphere rugby. There are lots of closed mindsets towards rugby here. But Ulster has been an eye-opener. I thought they’d kick a lot but the style is changing and sides are running more. The quality is pretty much the equal of the southern hemisphere.”
Ulster lead Conference B in the expanded Pro14 competition, which now includes two South African teams, and have won all four opening matches. That upbeat start matches a vibrant Belfast – which has changed so much since the darkness of the Troubles.
“I knew nothing at all,” Piutau says when asked if he had a rudimentary knowledge of the sectarian conflict. “Once I signed everyone would tell me their version of what happened and I was like: ‘Are you sure?’ It wasn’t until I got here that I looked into things. I’ve found it very interesting and it’s awesome how far they’ve come. Seeing different communities supporting us at this stadium is very special. It’s not like soccer where you still keep the two communities a little separate. This is the beauty of rugby uniting people.”
As Piutau is such a warm and gregarious man he must have found it hard to tell his team-mates he was leaving them for Bristol? “That’s always the hardest – saying goodbye to team-mates, friends, coaches, management and the fans. But everyone has been understanding and it helped I could speak to the team first. I said: ‘This has been a very hard decision but I hope you all know I’ll give 100 per cent this season. We’ve still got so much to do together.’ I was nervous at the start but I spoke from my heart. We have a lot of potential and I really want to make it a special farewell season.”
Piutau has also been enticed to Bristol by the presence his brother, and of their new coach Pat Lam and his friend and another former All Black, Steven Luatua. “Pat gave me my first Super Rugby opportunity. I only had two weeks with him at Auckland before he came to Connacht. But you could see his character and before he left he advised me to keep working hard and staying hungry to learn. It’s incredible we’ll work together again and I’ll be there with my brother and Steven – who I’ve played with since we were kids. Those familiar faces were a big pull.”
I speak to my dad about his early struggles when he moved to Auckland. He’d be working three different jobs – labouring and taxi driving.
Piutau will become rugby’s first million-pound man but he seems too grounded and bright to be blinded by that tag. “I’m still a Pacific Island kid who remembers our upbringing – and I hope to inspire other Pacific Island kids that you can do whatever you want to do. I’ve taken a place on the board of the Pacific Rugby Players’ Welfare (PRPW) association because we come from a very small community which is big on family and village support. Lots of guys end up in Europe and find it difficult to transition. We support them.”
Michael Jones, the great All Black, once told me how he struggled to conquer the innate reserve embedded into his Polynesian upbringing. How did Piutau overcome his own diffidence away from the heat of battle? “It took a while but funnily enough I led a hip-hop dance group in high school. That really helped as I was leading 60 guys and I was also head prefect at school. So I got used to speaking in front of people.”
Is he still breakdancing to old school hip-hop? Piutau laughs. “I’m not sure my body’s up to that. But in terms of music now I could go from country to opera. I grew up listening to music my siblings played and opera just grew on me. There are young Pacific Islanders into opera now and we’ve got a three-man opera group called Sole Mio. I’ve seen them live and they’re great.”
Away from Test rugby, Piutau can open himself to new experiences whether it’s living in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast or listening to opera. He remains committed to Ulster this season and Bristol next year and the future of international rugby is in the hands of others. Piutau can concentrate on his own career and those who mean most to him.
“I speak to my dad about his early struggles when he moved to Auckland. He’d be working three different jobs – labouring and taxi driving. It was really hard for my parents but we’ve come a long way and one of the best feelings is knowing that my family are happy and secure. They’re proud of what I’m doing and where I am.”