London’s streets weren’t paved with gold on Saturday for Charles Piutau. Bristol had initially played like Bears at Allianz Park and led the champions 13-7 prior to the last play of the opening half.
Then it all fell asunder. Saracens ran riot and Piutau eventually departed like a bear with a sore head during the costly second-half period spent down a man to the sin bin.
The full-back missed a tackle on Sean Maitland in the lead-up to one score and just before he was substituted, he was pinged for holding on in his last act before another try in as one-sided a Gallagher Premiership half as you will ever likely witness.
In the end, it finished a chastening 13-47, a cruel reminder there is still a way to go yet in Pat Lam’s long-term dream of turning his pretenders into definite title contenders.
The wound can be quickly patched up next Friday night, though. Bristol know a win at home over Wasps in front of a bumper holiday crowd in excess of 20,000 will temporarily lift them back into pole position before other teams play their round seven fixtures.
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In the meantime, spending Christmas Day over at his brother Siale’s place is the priority after a tough year. It was early April when the tightly knit family of ten siblings lost sister Ema to cancer, a devastating blow for a clan reared in the best Tongan traditions in the Auckland suburb of Mangere.
“In the Pacific Islands and in our culture family is everything,” explained Piutau to RugbyPass. “Family is first. You grow up and are taught the values that are important, of being together as a family and looking after one another. Having that instilled in us as kids I am quite proud of.
“When it comes to holiday times, Christmas and stuff, it is awesome just to get together with family and celebrating those moments. Being together is the main thing and I am lucky enough that I have my brother here and his family as well. It definitely makes the Christmas a whole lot better.”
Siale will be on the stove apparently. “He’s supposedly a good cook,” quipped his brother in jest, glad there are no last-minute panic present buys needed. “I got that done early. This is the first time, the first time, mate. It was more the wife. I didn’t really do much. She did most of it.”
If Charles sounds like he is somehow a passenger, leaving it to others to take the lead when it comes to showing generosity, nothing could be further from the truth. The full-back has been to the fore in ensuring Bristol Bears are getting out among its community during this season of goodwill.
It’s not just a seasonal thing either. Piutau made a point last summer of applying and becoming the community leader in the player leadership group for 2019/20. Giving something back is at its heart. “Part of our vision here is inspiring the community, not only on the field.
“There is a lot of community events that come across to our team manager and I then liaise in terms of putting it up to the rest of the squad. Most of the other clubs I had been a part of, boys were delegated and told who is going where and at what time. But the great thing about Bristol is the boys get to put up their hand and volunteer for whatever community events they want to be a part of.
“These community events range from hospital visits to coaching clinics with kids. It’s the full range of things, visiting rest homes or helping out feeding homeless people in the city. It has a great impact. Not only for us going out there, but the people we come across.
“The main thing is getting the brand out there, who we are as Bristol Bears genuinely caring about our community. At the same time, the boys play a bit of rugby with ball in hand as well and hopefully if people are not rugby fans or if they are not following the team, after this experience with them maybe they will get along to a game.”
Matches at Ashton Gate are certainly getting progressively more exciting the longer Lam and his crew spend at an ambitious club. The former Samoan player turned unfashionable Connacht from bungling chumps into glittering Guinness PRO12 champs in the space of three seasons in Ireland.
The coach is now in his third season at Bristol, following up a Championship title win in his maiden season with a ninth-place Premiership finish last term that was only five points off semi-final qualifying Northampton.
While it might sound very far-fetched in the wake of their Saturday hammering at Saracens to suggest a title might be winnable next June, Piutau is very optimistic they are at least headed in the right direction. It was why the 28-year-old recently signed a contract extension taking him through to 2022 with the club.
“Most of the group, this is their third year together,” he said, mindful he is in just his second after joining from Ulster in 2018. “It’s still early days but we have a goal for the end of the season… we took heaps of confidence from that [being top in November] and it’s where we want to be as a squad, up that part of the table.
“Having seen the style of rugby that Pat was implementing at Connacht and knowing him from back in New Zealand as well, I had a rough idea of the style of rugby he wanted to implement at Bristol and the style of coaching that he does.
“Having now experienced the culture he has been building here and continues to build as regards where we are going as a club is very exciting. As an individual playing for silverware is important and key as well, but this is where the club wants to be and that just made the decision easy for us to stay,” he volunteered, going on to outline what particular message Lam is repeatedly passing on to his squad in year three of his reign.
?| "I can't fault the effort, but they capitalised on our errors with two or three quick tries."
— Bristol Bears (@BristolBears) December 21, 2019
“For us, it’s more of the group taking ownership of where we are, of our individual roles, our roles within the team and in and around the culture. The word ownership is something he is really pushing and driving this season and that goes into our whole performance on and off the field, our mindset in training and stuff like that.”
The ultimate team-man was one of the plaudits bestowed on Piutau when he agreed to stay on but he knows he can’t fall in love with himself either. “Just with the comments, I don’t really read too much into those.
“As much as they can be positive, within the click of a finger they can be as much a negative as well. Having my own circle, family and friends, people who I trust and take advice from, that is the compliments that really matter to me and I go from there.”
— liam heagney (@heagneyl) July 14, 2019
Advice is a two-way street judging by how Piutau uses some of his spare time. There are fun and games, with playing Fortnite among his distractions. “I enjoy a bit of it. I’m pretty average if you’re talking about professional gamers, they are athletes in themselves,” he admitted, adding that maybe pitting Bristol versus a rival rugby club in online gaming could be cool. “Maybe that might be a good thing to start.”
More seriously, though, the former All Black is on the players’ board of Pacific Rugby Players’ Welfare (PRPW) and he is keen to help any fellow islander enjoy a prosperous career in the northern hemisphere.
“The main thing when I joined that board is to have a voice for the Pacific Islanders based in the UK and in Europe. Not only in the top division leagues but also second division, third division where probably player welfare isn’t as great. We just wanted to make sure we could offer support to those players and at the same time be a voice for them if we need to be.
“Coming from the Pacific Islands, it is a different environment. You are talking about they are living in a small village, the sun is out, they are living on the beach and time is slow. They are coming into a professional environment with all these expectations and they are expected to perform.
“It’s just being able to cope and help with a glimpse of something small, whether it is to help with a visit or transitioning from that (island environment) into whatever club they are at, or any other issues that may come to mind.”
His various lobbying could ultimately be rewarded in a personal way, though. It is often said that islanders capped by the top tier nations should be allowed to go back and represent the culture they are really more invested in.
For Piutau, that would mean being permitted to represent Tonga, the county skippered at the 2019 World Cup by his brother Siale. To play for the Ikale Tahi would be rather marvellous following his previous existence as a 17-times capped All Black axed by Steve Hansen before the 2015 World Cup after he revealed he would switch to European club rugby in 2016.
“I have been asked this question many times and if the opportunity arises I would be more than happy to have a crack with Tonga and be able to help in whatever way that I can for the country in terms of the rugby team. Yeah, definitely.”
In essence, it would be quite the ultimate Christmas present if it ever came to pass.
WATCH: RugbyPass went behind the scenes with the Tonga national team as they prepared for the 2019 World Cup in Japan
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