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Charles Piutau: 'You always saw that on the papers or the news'

By Liam Heagney
Charles Piutau goes on the attack for Shizuoka Blue Revs (Photo via JRLO 2024)

It’s safe to say that Charles Piutau didn’t quit the Gallagher Premiership for the quality of wi-fi in rural Japan. It was tough going on Good Friday, his connection regularly lagging when speaking with RugbyPass about his latest rugby adventure, life with the League One mid-table Shizuoka Blue Revs.

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The last time we touched base with the 32-year-old was five months ago. Tonga had just completed their Rugby World Cup campaign with a win over Romania and the Aucklander was all smiles when he stopped by to shoot the breeze in the Lille stadium mixed zone.

“Off to Japan now starting a new journey there and taste the Japanese club scene. For sure, language, culture, food, it will be different but I’m really excited to experience that and get stuck into it,” he enthused at the time, going on to wrap up his French visit with a family trip to Disneyland Paris.

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Twenty-five weeks later, how has he settled in the Far East? “It has been an amazing experience so far. Japanese culture, the people here, the club, the Blue Revs, have been very welcoming. Adapting to the game here, it’s very quick and that has been fun to be part of. And my family have settled in well to the city we are in. All good so far.

“We live in quite a small town, so there is not much around us. The kids are in school so it keeps them busy but they do love the theme parks and just being able to see a few different ones around is always something they want to go to. But even being able to take off to Shizuoka, a big city with tourist things, there are good family trips.

“It [Japan] is very respectful, it’s very safe for the kids and the family here. Then in terms of rugby, it is quite a fast-paced game and just coming into a new environment, that challenge of being in a new competition, a new country, that is what is keeping me on my toes – and I feel like I’m learning all over again now as well. I’d say the food is pretty amazing as well here. I’m allergic to seafood but the wagyu beef and ramen are favourites of mine.”

Piutau’s Japanese move wasn’t a complete step into the unknown. Twelve years ago, before he made his All Blacks breakthrough via his hometown Super Rugby Blues, he visited Siale, his older brother by six years, when he was playing for Yamaha Jubilo, the name that the Blue Revs were then known as.

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Still, it’s been an adjustment to feature in a team where the local players still combine company work with their rugby. “I’d been here before when my brother played here. I think it was 2012 when I came and visited him. I was familiar with the place but my wife and kids, it’s their first time.

“Yes, the company workers work about three hours two or three days of the week, so it is pretty humbling just to see the guys you are playing alongside are still working for a company and that makes you push even harder and help them where you can with skills on and off the field.”

This assistance has included Piutau, feted for so long as arguably the world’s most potent full-back, stepping forward and switching into outside centre. “It’s been a good experience so far,” he reflected about having the N013 on his back.

“I haven’t played there in a while. It’s almost like learning a new role again and getting used to the position, but I have a few games there under my belt now and I’m really enjoying the positional change playing in the midfield.

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“I believe the last time might have been back when I was playing for Wasps when I first got to England, the 2015/16 season. The start of it was the team needed me. A few guys got injured in the position so the coach asked me my thoughts defensively and that role needed to be filled.

“They asked if I could play there and ever since the coaches thought I was best suited there. With the pace being one of the fastest I have played in the game, I think it does suit me playing at centre.”

The Blue Revs went into the 12-team league’s Easter break sitting in seventh place, their record reading five wins and six losses in the 11 matches they have so far played in the regulation season 16-round tournament that is now being broadcast live every weekend on RugbyPass TV (click here to sign up for free access).

Included on the live stream schedule is the Blue Revs’ April 13 fixture at home to the defending champion Kubota Spears. They will hope for a success similar to what they enjoyed last weekend when hosting Toyota Verblitz.

That’s the club bossed by a certain Steve Hansen, the former All Blacks head coach who was at a loss in 2015 when Piutau decided to make a big-money move to Europe rather than stick it out in New Zealand and fight for Test squad selection.

How was their recent catch-up? “I didn’t get to see Steve after the game but to see Beauden (Barrett) and Aaron Smith was good. I have memories of when we played back together and were in teams.

“It seemed like a long time ago to be honest and it seemed like a good little quick chat after the game. It’s been a long time since seeing each other but always great to compete against each other on the field.”

Nine years ago, Piutau’s New Zealand exit wasn’t favourably received. Numerous Kiwis couldn’t fathom that he was putting overseas club action ahead of country selection at such a young age, but he has no regrets and this type of an early departure to the northern hemisphere by players in the 20s has since become a more regular occurrence.

“The opportunity is there overseas,” he reflected. “There was always talk that you probably wouldn’t grow your rugby going overseas. Back then it was more when you were coming towards the end of your career that you would head overseas.

“But for myself to be able to go at a young age and experience different types of the way they played rugby up north and even the life outside rugby as well, the experience that I had off the field as well really helped me mature as a person.

“It’s definitely an opportunity and you see more guys leaving at a young age to test themselves and still grow in their career. In this time and age now, if your goal is to stay and be an All Black then continue to chase that but if it’s to experience the world and play a different style of rugby and new countries and explore the world, it’s definitely a good opportunity.”

When Piutau joined Pat Lam’s Bristol in 2018 after pitstops at Wasps and Ulster, the attention on him was huge as he was labelled rugby’s first million-pound player due to his extravagant annual remuneration package. That tag wasn’t a weight on his shoulder.

“You always saw that (label) on the papers or the news but myself, it was just trying to focus on trying to be at my best, just play the game that I know that I have been playing since I was a kid, having that hunger to grow and be at my best and perform week in and week out.”

It has served him well, his property portfolio providing the nest egg that will eventually see him transition out of the game when he retires. “Before I started making rugby professional I always wanted to be a builder so naturally I have a big love for houses and then the business side of it came along as well and so it’s something I enjoy.”

Piutau has been well-advised along the way. “For sure, I think having a good agent, not only having your rugby goals but the financial goals you want to achieve and set from playing the game and working at that as well.”

He is contracted at the Blue Revs until the end of the 2025/26 season, by which stage he will be 34 and just over a year and a bit out from the 2027 Rugby World Cup in Australia.

He fulfilled the dream of representing Tonga in the last edition, the change in the eligibility rules enabling him to take advantage of his lengthy stand down from the All Blacks to go and represent the country of his parents.

Tonga are set to feature in the upcoming reimagined Pacific Nations Cup, which will culminate with finals matches in Japan this September. Piutau is unsure what way the dice will roll, though, as the Tongans have yet to appoint a successor to Toutai Kefu and formulate their plans.

“No, I haven’t heard anything yet. I haven’t put any thought into it yet. At the moment I have just been focusing on club rugby and once they announce coaches and stuff like that, I’ll see how the body is and maybe have a conversation with the coach about selection.”

Piutau back in Test-level red about a club season in blue would be sure to pique the travel interest of his wider family. “The fact that being one flight (away) compared to being in the UK is a lot better for me and my family. Also the games, there are not as many as in the UK and that is also good for my body.”

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Comments

4 Comments
J
Jasyn 112 days ago

The ultimate mercenary. Could have been one of the international greats and bed talked about for decades, as well as being a world cup winner. He certainly would have been handier to have at 15 for the last couple instead of Beauden Barrett.

Instead, after letting nz rugby put all their time and money bringing him through and essentially using being an AB to up his price, he extends the middle finger and almost immediately starts looking for loopholes so he could (yet again) jump ship to Tonga while raking in the cash, a country he wasn't born in and has probably hardly set foot in in his life.

The irony is as a world cup winner and potentially great All Black over time he could have named his price and made far more of the money, that seems to be all he cares about. Hansen and the NZR was right to be pissed, especially as Piutau gave them his word only to immediately turncoat on them.

F
Forward pass 113 days ago

Piatau is in Japan because its easy money. Thats his whole career. He wont ever be remembered as a champion but his replacement for 2015 wins a WC and scores in the final. M-S will forever be a hero. Piatau ….. nah….

J
Jon 114 days ago

“But for myself to be able to go at a young age and experience different types of the way they played rugby up north and even the life outside rugby as well, the experience that I had off the field as well really helped me mature as a person.
It would be great if players could have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately that perceived lessoning of standards, and simply how out of sync you get with your national teams play and ethos, at least in a case of a NZ or Aus player, just means you are basically out of that top 23 playing group now. Very evident for Australia that overseas players have never really performed for them, eg Skelton after he left. Mostly what contributes to the one way movement of players, is once they leave for money, it’s very hard to give that up for your dreams/desires etc.
Now that Japan is on the scene and very accommodating (at the moment) towards short term contracts of Internationals, players are able to experience these opportunities without losing that scope in their careers.

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