No one bothered to look for silver linings in the dark cloud of defeat that hung over Yokohama Stadium last year when the All Blacks were knocked out of the World Cup semifinal.
Such an exercise in futility was never going to appeal, but one has cropped up nevertheless.
Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu probably would have today been announcing he was leaving New Zealand had it not been for that 19-7 loss to England.
That defeat changed the course of his personal history. Not entirely on its own though. The genuine revival at the Blues which saw them top the New Zealand Conference before the lockdown pushed him further along the path to staying and then of course there was the impact of the Coronavirus.
It was the perfect storm and from reaching September last year, almost certain 2020 would be his last season in New Zealand, the 27-year old Blues captain is now going to be staying here until at least 2023.
“Before the World Cup I had the one year left and if we had won, things probably would have changed and I would probably have gone overseas and set myself some new challenges,” he says.
“But coming into this year it changed even more given how well things were going at the Blues.
“There was interest from overseas but in the end with everything going on with Covid – how it was impacting in Japan and Europe – it was pretty scary. My partner and I have been together for a while now and we may want to start a family in the next few years and so I thought where do I want to set myself up, my family up, and I thought New Zealand is probably the best place to do that right now.”
Players hate being judged for their career choices but it’s inevitable that it will happen and around the country, there will be knowledgeable heads nodding slowly to signal that they feel Tuipulotu has made a wise decision.
Something happened last year to Tuipulotu. It was almost as if he had an epiphany of sorts, saw a way to transform himself from a talented but inconsistent performer into a genuinely dominating, international class lock.
One minute no one was sure about him, the next he was a player the nation wanted to see in big tests where his giant frame could smash the last resistance out of tired opponents.
His moment of arrival was the second Bledisloe Cup test in Auckland where he was intensely destructive, not in isolated blasts as was too often the case in the earlier part of his career, but for the duration.
At Eden Park that night he looked like he knew he was playing to save his All Blacks career and it’s a mentality he hasn’t lost. Since August last year, Tuipulotu has been impressive – imposing and resilient, aware almost that he’s a big man with the capacity to hurt teams if he believes in himself and increases his output.
He was still the fourth-choice lock behind Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett, but the gap had closed.
“In terms of flicking the switch, it is disappointing that it took me that long to understand things,” he says. “I have probably had a longer learning curve than others.
“Early on in my career there were games where I would do one physical thing and then be silent for the rest of the game. But if you look at the top players, they dominate physically the whole game not just for one instance.
“The way I play rugby is to try to dominate my position. You see guys performing week in week out where they want to dominate and use what they have got and fight for every inch, I am still working on that. But it is something I enjoy – the big collisions.”
He’s got three years to work on it in New Zealand now and he’s got absolute clarity about what he wants to achieve and how to do it.
He’s a man on the rise. A player with the physical goods and now the mental desire and if he’s well handled in the next three years, he’ll climb up that national pecking order.
Tucked away, and certain to power him, is a fierce memory from Yokohama. Tuipulotu was on the bench that night and probably left there too long.
It hurt the All Blacks not injecting him earlier, but there is a delayed reward of sorts to collect from that mistake.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 15, 2020
“That’s something on my mind,” says Tuipulotu. “I was sitting on the bench wondering when I was going to get on because I was getting an inch and thinking that if I got on I could make an impact straight away. I was hungry for it.
“That is something that drives me and motivates me to have another crack where I am not on the bench or pushing myself to not be on the bench.
“That opportunity has always been there to push. It has been up to me that if I really want it I now what I have to do.
“I have to play out of my skin and do that consistently and that will take care of itself. I have never thought ‘he’s better than me and this is what I will have to do to be better than him’.
“That’s the thing you can only get so far being nice. Growing up my dad would never praise me that much and I think that is where I get it from. I would be happy with anything. You are playing professional sport and it’s not going to be fair. It’s cut throat so you have to take it as far as you can.
“You are allowed to be a different person when you play. Off the field you can be yourself and be humble again.”
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