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Ex-All Blacks star Charles Piutau opens up on imminent Tongan switch

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Former All Blacks star Charles Piutau has lifted the lid behind his prospective switch of international allegiance from New Zealand to Tonga in the wake of World Rugby’s recently-amended eligibility laws.

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Last week, it was announced by the game’s global governing body that internationally-capped players will be able to play for a second country that they are eligible through birthright, provided they stand down from test rugby for three years, from January 1.

The change in ruling has paved the way for numerous players to switch countries with immediate effect, with Samoa and Tonga standing as the teams with the most to gain from the overturned law.

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Among the various former internationals of Samoan and Tongan background set to throw their lot in with the Pacific Island nations over the coming months is Piutau, who will, within a month’s time, become eligible for the ‘Ikale Tahi.

It’s been six years since the 30-year-old utility back played the last of his 17 tests for the All Blacks before leaving New Zealand at the age of just 23 to take up a lucrative contract with English Premiership side Wasps after having missed selection for the 2015 World Cup.

Since then, Piutau has established himself as one of the best players in European club rugby, as reflected by his status as the world’s equal-highest-paid player alongside Springboks playmaker Handre Pollard.

Both players reportedly earn £1 million per season, with Piutau the first to become rugby’s million-pound player when he signed with his current side Bristol Bears in 2018 following a series of compelling displays throughout the European domestic scene.

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Prior to joining Pat Lam’s squad, Piutau was named 2015-16 Premiership Player of the Season during his time with Wasps and was crowned PRO12 (now known as the United Rugby Championship) Players’ Player of the Season a year later in his debut campaign for Ulster.

He was also included in both the the 2015-16 Premiership Team of the Season and the 2016-17 PRO12 Team of the Season, and continued that vein of form when he began his spell in Bristol three years ago.

Selected in back-to-back Premiership Teams of the Season for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns, Piutau helped guide Bristol to its first European honour as the Bears claimed the second-tier Challenge Cup last year.

Piutau achieved all of this while remaining ineligible for the All Blacks as he plied his trade outside of New Zealand, leaving the world deprived of viewing his exceptional talents on the global stage.

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That’s set to change, though, as World Rugby’s new laws means Piutau will become available to play for Tonga, his parents’ nation of birth, from New Year’s Day.

Jumping ship from New Zealand to Tonga is an emotional prospect for Piutau, as it will be for other players in a similar position to him.

His brother Siale played in 43 tests and at three World Cups for the ‘Ikale Tahi, and the chance to follow in his sibling’s footsteps and honour his heritage is something that Charles hasn’t shied away from.

“It’s always been a place close to my heart. My family were happy about the news and personally I’m happy that if I’m selected I can give back to Tonga,” Piutau said, as per the Daily Mail.

The presence of Piutau in the Tongan squad would be a significant boost for head coach Toutai Kefu, who is also set to welcome a large swathe of former internationals next year, including the likes of Israel Folau and Malakai Fekitoa.

Those players – and others such as former All Blacks Vaea Fifita, George Moala and Augustine Pulu, as well as ex-Wallabies Adam Coleman and Sekope Kepucould make Tonga a seriously competitive unit come the 2023 World Cup in France.

It is partly for that reason that Piutau is keen on playing for Tonga as he hopes to help form his parents’ homeland into a team capable of taking down some of rugby’s biggest nations.

That chance is likely to come at the next World Cup should Tonga claim the Asia/Pacific berth next year, which would see them qualify for Pool B alongside the Springboks, Ireland and Scotland.

“This change is a start. It’s not the only or the main thing, there are many others, but it’s a step towards being able to bridge the gap between the tier one nations,” Piutau said, according to the Daily Mail.

“With the possible players that may be available, it’s them being able to share their experience and knowledge can add to what’s already there.

“If I can pull on the Tonga jersey it’ll definitely be a memory I’ll cherish. I’m happy not only for myself but for the possibilities of what it can do for Pacific nations.”

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