'It'll be a success': Charles Piutau's vision for Tonga at 2023 World Cup
While the ‘Ikale Tahi are still yet to qualify for rugby’s global showpiece event, a play-off series victory against either Hong Kong, South Korea or Malaysia to book their place in Pool B as the Asia/Pacific qualifier seems inevitable.
Even more so when you consider the talent that Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu has at his disposal now that World Rugby has changed its eligibility laws, which came into effect on January 1.
By enabling test-capped players to switch countries they are eligible for through birthright following a three-year stand down period, World Rugby has opened the door for a plethora of ex-international stars to play for test rugby once again.
Piutau, who played the last of his 17 All Blacks tests in 2015 before leaving to take up several lucrative club contracts in Europe, is one of those players.
Ineligible to play for the All Blacks by virtue of playing his club rugby abroad, Piutau can now return to international rugby with Tonga, the home nation of his parents and the country that he represented at U20 level in 2010.
The 30-year-old isn’t the only household name set to join the ‘Ikale Tahi following World Rugby’s change in ruling.
A swathe of ex-All Blacks and Wallabies – Israel Folau, Malakai Fekitoa, Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman, Vaea Fifita, George Moala, Augustine Pulu and Atu Moli – either have or will become eligible for Tonga by the end of 2022 after having not played test rugby for years.
Likewise, Samoa are set to benefit hugely from the law change, but Piutau is particularly hopeful of how World Rugby’s revamped laws will impact Tonga.
Speaking to Pacific Beat on ABC, Piutau revealed his aspirations for the ‘Ikale Tahi to have the kind of impact at the 2023 World Cup that their rugby league counterparts, Mate Ma’a Tonga, had at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
At that tournament, Tonga became a revelation as they defeated New Zealand en route to secure a place in the semi-final, where they came within seconds of toppling England.
Their dream run was the story of the tournament and captivated audiences worldwide, but it was the change of international allegiance from NRL stars, the most prominent of whom was ex-Kiwis prop Jason Taumalolo, that fuelled Tonga’s success.
Piutau told Pacific Beat that he envisages the ‘Ikale Tahi producing similar fanfare should the aforementioned names join forces and add depth to the talent already evident within the Tongan squad ahead of next year’s World Cup.
“I think that’s the hope,” he said of Tonga’s goal of making an impact in international rugby in the wake of World Rugby’s law change.
“Not only myself, Malakai and a lot of other guys are eligible, and I think what Jason and the other guys in league [did], I think, was kind of the blueprint and kind of opened our eyes, really, to what can happen when the opportunity lies ahead.
“Even if we can make games more competitive, that’s a start, but what the league guys [did] there, I think that was definitely an eye-opener, for myself, to see the impact that it had on young Tongan kids.
“Whether they were in Tonga, New Zealand, Australia or wherever, there was a sense of, ‘They want to grow up and put on the red jersey and represent Tonga’.
“I think if we can replicate something similar to that, then I think it’ll be a success.”
A long-time advocate for World Rugby to change its eligibility laws, Piutau said he is “really stoked and happy” that he now has the chance to play for Tonga after years of failed attempts for the rules to be altered.
Now the equal-highest paid player in rugby believes there is a sense of excitement among his countrymen about what they can achieve if they all take to the field together.
“I’ve been in touch with a few players, and I think that does help when they hear other players – not only myself, but the potential lineup we could put together – in the team,” he told Pacific Beat.
“I think that brings a lot of excitement and makes guys want to take that step if they’re kind of on the fence.”
From a personal standpoint, the opportunity to play for Tonga brings Piutau and his family a strong sense of pride, especially considering his older brother Siale is a former captain of the ‘Ikale Tahi and played at three World Cups.
By contrast, Charles is yet to play at a World Cup, a feat that is scarcely believable when you consider the talent and star power he possesses.
Controversially excluded by the All Blacks from their successful 2015 World Cup squad as a result of his decision to head overseas at the age of just 23, Piutau is instead targeting a World Cup debut with his new team in little more than 18 months’ time.
Even if Tonga somehow spectacularly fail to qualify for the tournament, the chance to play for his parents’ homeland as early as this July is an opportunity that both Piutau and his family will cherish.
“I think, for myself, that the World Cup is the pinnacle of our game. I haven’t been there yet,” he said.
“To represent Tonga and to pull on a jersey, my brother has done that, captained the team, so I think to follow in his footsteps will be a huge honour for myself.
“I know, speaking to my parents, they would be really proud to see me put on that red jersey and represent the country of their birth. It would mean a lot.”
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