Hoskins Sotutu could have been another immensely innately talented rugby player who shone like a star then fizzled out as soon as he hit the big leagues.
We’ve seen it plenty of times before: a player with all the skills needed to be a professional falls by the wayside because they’re missing the right attitude.
It wasn’t that Sotutu didn’t have the commitment, hunger or desire however – he was committed to being a professional rugby player.
But that’s not how it looked to his coaches.
“Last year I was basically just training the whole time, I didn’t get much game time,” Sotutu told RugbyPass during New Zealand’s coronavirus lockdown period.
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It’s not hard to see why a 20-year-old might struggle to break into a Super Rugby starting lineup, especially when you consider the riches that the Blues have at their disposal.
Last year, they had Blake Gibson, Dalton Papalii, Tom Robinson and Akira Ioane on their books – men who are all adept at covering multiple loose forward roles.
Sotutu’s lack of experience, while it may have been a factor in his non-selection, wasn’t what held him back, however.
“As a person, I’m quite relaxed. At training, sometimes I might not look engaged,” said Sotutu.
“The coaches just said that if I’m not playing, they’ve gotta pick me off the way I train and if I don’t look engaged and it doesn’t seem like I’m working hard, they won’t pick me.
“This year, I tried to change it.”
Again, it’s not that Sotutu wasn’t willing to put in the hard yards – it’s just that his relaxed demeanour made it difficult for the coaches to tell whether he was putting in 100%.
“I get the same feedback throughout all the teams, that I look like I don’t care,” Sotutu said. “It’s just my face, I guess.”
The exact make-up of New Zealand's new-look loose forward trio won't be known for a while, but it's already pretty clear who'll be part of the mix, writes @TomVinicombe. #SuperRugby @AllBlacks #AllBlacks https://t.co/0eVdag2iDF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 23, 2020
It’s not the first time that Sotutu has struggled for gametime with a team. When the former Sacred Heart student was picked for the New Zealand Under 20 side in 2018 he was also given limited minutes with new Hurricanes recruit Devon Flanders preferred in the 8 jersey.
“That was another big learning curve,” said Sotutu of his time with the side.
“I didn’t play much and I just felt they didn’t really like me; I don’t really know what it was. That was frustrating.
“I think it was sort of [not looking engaged] but I don’t really know, I felt like I didn’t get the opportunity to play and show them I could play rugby.”
For a young sportsman, there’s little worse than watching your team play while you’re restricted to the sidelines and it had a big impact on Sotutu at the time.
“I thought that I was just there for a holiday because I wasn’t getting any game time,” Sotutu said.
“It was frustrating not playing because I knew that was such a big stage and I saw that as the next step for me.
“That year, I felt like I wasn’t good enough, I felt like my rugby was going backwards – I was wondering if I still had it.”
Sotutu also didn’t receive a great review from the Under 20s coaching set-up after the campaign, which added to the frustration – but he had some allies in his corner too.
“One of our trainers at Auckland just reassured me that the person they were describing in the review wasn’t me,” Sotutu said, “and he saw me basically every day.”
“It was good to hear that because that was the probably the lowest I’ve ever felt in rugby.”
Hoskins Sotutu didn’t dwell on the 2018 campaign, however – as evidenced by the turnarounds in his performances.
After making just a single appearance for the Blues last year, Sotutu showed some good early form in the Mitre 10 Cup.
A high-ankle strain saw the blockbusting loose forward ruled out of the latter half of the provincial competition but his early season performances and some solid pre-season training with the Blues saw him elevated to the starting lineup for the first game of the Super Rugby season – and he hasn’t looked back since.
The Blues have suffered just two losses this year – at the hands of two the competitions’ early front-runners, the Chiefs and the Crusaders, but have secured tough away victories over the Waratahs, Bulls, Stormers and Hurricanes and thrashed the Lions in Auckland.
Sotutu has played a key role in most of those matches, just sitting out the win over the Hurricanes.
That promotion has meant some bad news for one of Sotutu’s closest mentors, however, with experienced Blues loosie Akira Ioane being kept to minimal game-time this season.
“I’m happy that I’m playing but there’s always someone that’s going to miss out,” said Sotutu,
“It’s Aki at the moment. Later in the season, we might’ve seen me and him starting on the pitch at the same time.
“Aki’s sort of the big brother in the team. He’s happy for me and happy that I’m getting a shot.
“He’s real supportive of all the players, but especially me. He’s always been helping me out through my development with the Blues.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 25, 2020
From Sotutu’s point of view, the Blues haven’t significantly changed the way they do things in 2020 – but team confidence is a lot higher.
“Every year we have the same mindset going into Super Rugby,” Sotutu said.
“This year, we’ve been getting the results – and that just gave us that confidence that we could actually do it, especially after the wins against the Stormers and the Hurricanes.”
Unfortunately for the Blues, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that they’ll get any reward for their endeavours to date due to the coronavirus pandemic which has suspended competitions around the world.
“A few of the boys were disappointed,” Sotutua said.
“It’s a weird one. We’ve gone pretty average the last couple of years and then the year we’re going pretty mean, something like this comes up. It’s a bit gutting, but that’s just the way it goes.”
And while the season may have come to a premature end, Hoskins Sotutu won’t be resting on his laurels.
2020 may have been a breakout year for the dynamic Number 8 but there’s still plenty more work for the 21-year-old to do and after signing his first full-time contract with the Blues in 2018, he hopes to keep doing it in the city in which he grew up.
“The Blues are my team, the team I care about – and I feel like I was only going to play the best rugby for a team that I care about,” Sotutu said.
“As long as the Blues are keen to keep me, I’m keen to stay.”
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