Who is Sione Tuipulotu and is he Scotland's next centre?
The cacophonous Tuipulotu clan fell silent when Jaqueline Anne Thomson strode into the room, her Clydeside rasp as piercing as if she had just hopped off the plane from Glasgow. So many decades in the suburbs of Melbourne, yet the linguistic hallmark of home has never waned.
Sione, the middle child of five siblings, chuckled as he spun a few yarns about his grandmother, the undisputed family matriarch. She is deeply special to all of the Tuipulotus, but it is her roots that have given the powerful back a pathway from Japan to Glasgow Warriors, European rugby, and maybe, just maybe, the international stage.
Jaqueline emigrated from Glasgow to Melbourne as a young woman, met an Italian man and raised her children in Frankston, on the city’s southeast fringes. Her daughter, Sione’s mother, married a Tongan labourer-cum-nightclub bouncer, but even hulking Tuhefohe did not strike as much fear into his unruly kids as Jaqueline.
“Everyone thinks we got the worst hidings from our Tongan side, but it was actually from our grandma,” Tuipulotu told RugbyPass. “When she’s angry, she’s angry. She’s got a bit of a reputation at family gatherings. She hass still got her full accent and stands out in our family as a bit of a cult figure.
“Me and my brothers are pretty grateful that we spent a lot of time around her growing up when my mum and dad were working. We grew up with a lot of her discipline. I remember little things at her house. She had a big fireplace which we loved. She never really had cable TV. We did things with her that we have always held close as we have grown up. She had a massive library and would always try and make us read, but as boys we just wanted to go outside and trash her yard.”
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) March 1, 2021
Jaqueline is not prone to histrionics, but her smile spread as broad as the Clyde when she learned her grandson would represent the city she left all those years ago. It is an extraordinary tale, and Tuipulotu might not be telling it all had he succumbed to the influences of his youth.
A rugby scholarship at the prestigious St Kevin’s College yanked him from a perilous routine. Frankston is dear to him, but as a wild and impressionable kid, it offered too many distractions, too great a pull from the straight and narrow. “I loved it down there, but in my teenage years, I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, I was easily influenced and basically just going to school because I had to, or not going at all.
“There was a point where my dad was going to send me to Tonga because he thought that would be the best way to discipline me. But when I got the opportunity at St Kevin’s it honestly saved my life in a way.”
Every morning, Tuipulotu would be up by six. He rode a train an hour into the city, then another for 20 minutes to school itself. He became immersed in his studies, learned the importance of honest toil and taking pride in one’s endeavours.
“I couldn’t hang around places; I always had to be on the move,” he explained. “I’d finish school and then have rugby training or touch training or athletics training. Then I’d go to the library and most nights I would be getting home at 8-9pm. I wasn’t bored. I’m grateful for that opportunity and it put me in the position to achieve my dreams early in my career.
“When I was a bit younger, I probably thought that the whole world was against me. I was frustrated, not engaged in any academics, but when I moved to St Kevin’s I just saw another side of life. It’s a very diverse school where you have got kids whose parents are really wealthy and others whose parents put 50 per cent of their salaries into school fees. That diversity made me embrace the culture and put me on the right path, not only for my rugby but for my academics.”
Only recently at 24 has it dawned on Tuipulotu how gravely his family flirted with the breadline back then and how much his parents sacrificed to give their children what they never had. Tuhefohe was crate-shifter by day and a terror-inducing doorman by night. Typical of many Tongan men, his manner was silent but lethal – he could floor you with a look just as soon as a punch.
He turned 50 last week. His business is flourishing and the milestone birthday sparked reflection and gratitude in Tuipulotu. “My mum and dad were busting arse trying to keep food on the table,” he said. “Dad started off unloading containers in a warehouse and working the nightclubs. Slowly, as we got older, he took over the warehousing business and now he just works from home, owns his own warehousing business and sends all the labourers out.
“What is most inspiring for me is that he put it all back into his kids. Even though he started becoming successful, he constantly reinvested in his children, trying to put us in the right environments to succeed. I’m so grateful for that. It’s instilled perseverance in me.”
As Tuipulotu grew older, professional rugby crystallised from a distant dream to a very tangible possibility. The Melbourne Rebels were formed in 2010 and the centre became the first home-grown player to represent the franchise in Super Rugby. He feasted on the wisdom of the giants around him. Kiwi Tamati Ellison was a beacon of knowledge and advice.
“I’ve always been a good, powerful runner with footwork and speed, but being around those senior players like Tamati made me think, nah, I want to be good at passing and kicking, I want to better my game. I learned little intricacies in communication, positioning, even body language.
“Being around young players now, even though I have just turned 24, these are things that I pass on. What Tamati taught me were not necessarily big, game-changing skills, just little things that you can add to your game whether it’s the slightest bit of communication, technique alteration or positioning.”
Rugby took him next to Japan where he signed a short-term deal with Yamaha Jubilo in 2018, playing alongside his cousin and Tongan international Viliami Tahitu’a. He loved Yamaha so much that he has been back for two more Top League seasons – former Edinburgh lock Murray Douglas is a current teammate – and steeped himself in the ways of the Japanese.
ICYMI | Dynamic Scottish-qualified centre/wing Sione Tuipulotu became our latest new signing ahead of 2021/22 earlier today, and the man himself can't wait to pull on the Glasgow jersey.
— Glasgow Warriors (@GlasgowWarriors) March 1, 2021
The club is located in the coastal city of Iwata, around 130 miles south-west of Tokyo. Western comforts are few and the contrast with home stark. “It’s not like having the bright lights of Tokyo flashing. I couldn’t get away with taking shortcuts, and they hold you accountable to how you act in the team and embrace Japanese culture. That is probably what attracted me to Yamaha in the first place. I fell in love with all the little things about the club.
“We don’t have a Samu Kerevi or the big Test stars of a Suntory, Kobe or Panasonic. Our biggest name is probably Kwagga Smith, the Springbok. But we are a team that really punches above our weight. We have consistently been a top-four side and winning most of the time is fun. We have culture of being hard-working and if you come and play us, it’s not going to be an easy game, we’re going to make it ugly.”
On Saturday, Tuipulotu played on the wing as Yamaha shellacked NEC Green Rockets 59-31. He is happy to flit around the backline, his dynamism, agility and off-loading razzle burning to the fore. Chuck him into the Glasgow mix with Sam Johnson, Nick Grigg, Robbie Fergusson, Stafford McDowall and a fit-again Kyle Steyn next season and the Warriors midfield packs serious ammunition.
Tuipulotu has spoken to Danny Wilson in great detail about the kind of game he brings to the table and how it meshes with the coach’s plan. He has also had tantalising chats with Gregor Townsend and will not conceal his yearning to one day crack Test rugby.
“I was really excited to talk to Gregor (Townsend) and I have the ambition – that’s obvious. I wouldn’t have a reason to go to Scotland if I didn’t have that ambition. But after my chats with Danny, my mindset is just around going to Glasgow, making the best impression on the boys there through those early times. Having a new team environment, you really want to earn that new group of boys’ respect early.
“I’ve watched a lot of Glasgow. I see those guys like Sammy Johnson and Huw Jones and I could just see myself playing that style of rugby. There is the 4G pitch, but just from watching the games, it seems like a team that really enjoys attacking and that is a mindset that I have grown up with, to have the want to attack and to pull the trigger from anywhere.”
Tuipulotu is encouraged too by what he sees in the Scottish production line. As an U20s international, he played for Australia against Scotland in the 2016 Junior World Championship, coming up against Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Gloucester-bound Adam Hastings and a spree of current caps. After the rugby, the young boys did what young boys do, and tore up the tiles of Salford.
“In our first game we actually lost to Scotland and then we played them later down the road and got one back on them. We actually got to know those boys pretty well. We had a couple of nights out with Adam and those boys who play for Glasgow. In the game, we were all going, ‘Get that 10! Get that 10!’ We were looking at him with the hair and the whole gig, and then we saw him out in Tiger Tiger in Manchester and he was actually a good bloke. He was a bit of a lightweight that night. I have heard he is leaving, but to see him playing over there and playing well for Glasgow – it’s funny how rugby works.”
Funny indeed. A kaleidoscope of nationalities and cultures, Tuipulotu will move to Scotland in June. His nineteen-year-old brother Mosese is now with the Waratahs and you can bet Scottish rugby will be keeping a close eye on his progress. Back in Australia, with no interest in satellite TV or a functioning smartphone, Jaqueline will struggle to watch the boy don the colours of her city. But the pride will be coursing through her all the same – even if she doesn’t show it.
You can't make this stuff up, Brodie Retallick is owning the Top League this year. ? https://t.co/Cz9MdC1nUk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 8, 2021
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