How Charles Piutau can still play for Tonga despite missing out on national sevens squad
Despite missing out on playing at this weekend’s Olympic qualification tournament, not all hope is lost for ex-All Blacks star Charles Piutau’s dream of playing international rugby for Tonga.
Last week, former All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa made headlines when it was confirmed he will complete an international switch of allegiance by turning out for Tonga’s national sevens side at the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament in Monaco this weekend.
Although he accrued 24 test caps for the All Blacks between 2014 and 2017, Fekitoa is now eligible to play for the nation of his birth because he holds a Tongan passport and has stood down from international rugby for three years.
If an internationally-capped player, either at XV-a-side or sevens level, meets that criteria, they are eligible to play for their second nation at the Olympics or in an Olympic qualifying event.
That then makes that player eligible to play test rugby for their second nation, which means Fekitoa is in line to turn out for the ‘Ikale Tahi later this year.
However, Piutau, who was widely linked to make an international switch of allegiance six years after his last test for the All Blacks, missed out on the chance to play for Tonga this weekend due to his commitments with his club side Bristol Bears.
Bristol have qualified for the Premiership play-offs and are playing their semi-final against Harlequins this weekend, making Piutau unavailable to play for Tonga in Monaco.
With participation in Olympic sevens events the only way a player can transfer from one country to another, this weekend’s tournament was deemed vital for Piutau’s eligibility change as the next available window to make the switch was thought to be the 2023 Oceania Sevens Championship, by which point Piutau will be 31-years-old.
That isn’t the case, though, as Tonga sevens manager Richard Weightman confirmed to RNZ that Piutau could still turn out for the national sevens side at next month’s Olympics if they win this weekend’s tournament.
“You wish a guy like that all the well with the playoffs and [if we win in Monaco and] we make the Olympics in Japan and all of a sudden he’s got the opportunity to wear the red jersey and be at the 2023 World Cup,” Weightman said.
The men’s sevens competition at the Tokyo Games is scheduled to run between the 26-28 July, during which time Piutau will have no club commitments.
Given his lengthy spell away from international rugby, and the fact he holds a Tongan passport, Piutau would be available to represent Tonga at the Olympics should they emerge victorious at Stade Louis II.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 14, 2021
In order to do that, Tonga will have to finish in the top two of their group – which also features Samoa, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Mexico – and then beat any one of France, Hong Kong, Chile, Uganda or Jamaica in the following semi-final.
Victory in the final would rubber-stamp Tonga’s ticket to Tokyo, which would then give Piutau the chance to play for his nation of heritage.
The 17-test international’s presence in the Tongan sevens set-up would not only boost the country’s chances of an unlikely medal finish at the Olympics, but it would also be immense for the ‘Ikale Tahi leading into the 2023 World Cup.
With the ‘Ikale Tahi already set to reap the rewards of Fekitoa’s switch, Toutai Kefu’s squad would become a genuine force to be reckoned with at rugby’s global showpiece event in two years’ time if Piutau was able to be selected.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 14, 2021
In addition to Fekitoa, Tonga also have ex-Wallabies utility forward Lopeti Timani in their ranks for this weekend’s tournament.
It means all four players will be available to play test rugby for Tonga this year, although none of them will be in contention to play the All Blacks and Samoa next month due to New Zealand’s quarantine restrictions.
Nevertheless, Weightman is optimistic about what the new influx of established talent means the future of Tongan rugby.
“Some of the challenge of getting European players into New Zealand – again because of the MIQ situation – has opened the door for some of our sevens players that hopefully will be named in the ‘Ikale Tahi squad when it’s named later, so one door might close [but] another one opens.”
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