A generation of No12s will soon breathe easier as the man known as ‘Hacksaw Sam’ is bringing his chopping days to an end.
Former All Black centre Sam Tuitupou, whose ferocious tackling earned him this instantly recognisable nickname, has won legions of supporters during his outstanding 16-year professional career. Needless to say, few of these fans have been on the receiving end of the shuddering hits the 37-year-old Tongan descendant is synonymous for.
For those whose ribs remain intact, the renowned practical joker – for whom the next infectious smile and quip is never more than seconds away – is also the most popular of teammates.
But all good things must eventually come to an end and an opportunity to launch his own player agency has accelerated the the former Sale, Worcester and Munster midfielder’s decision to make Coventry’s current Championship campaign his last.
“My goal was always to continue to about 40 so I could play with my boys, but I have been given an opportunity which makes this the right time,” he said. “It also enables me to stop playing on my own terms. I’ve had a few niggles, but the body is still okay. I could go on for a couple more years, so I’m happy to be able to choose the time rather than an injury deciding it for me.
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“My family have had to sacrifice a lot for me over the years and now it’s time to give back to my wife and seven kids and spend some time with them. I have to make the most of my opportunities; I’m starting my own player agency, so I’ll still be around rugby, but not being involved with the boys might take a bit of getting used to.
“My big motivation has come from seeing problems that players have with agents – not just islanders but also local boys – so I’m hoping I can make a difference on the player welfare side of things. As soon as you say you’re an agent some people get goosebumps, but I see it more as being a support line and a friend to the players. Someone they can reach out to.”
Clients will admire Tuitupou’s CV. He captained New Zealand at under-19 level before leading his country to under-21 World Cup glory in 2003. By the time he moved to the northern hemisphere four years later, the powerful midfielder had also won two Air New Zealand Cups with Auckland and lifted the Super Rugby title as part of a Blues line-up still considered to be one of the competition’s best-ever winning squads.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 16, 2016
Tuitupou lists this as one of his proudest achievements, remembering his time working under the great Graham Henry with genuine fondness. “Winning Super Rugby in 2003 as a young buck playing almost every game in my first season with the Blues is a stand-out memory. Then in 2007 I was captain when Auckland went through the season almost completely unbeaten.
“Graham was involved with Auckland, the Blues and New Zealand during my time. His passion really stood out. Also the amount of detail he brought, both to reviewing the opposition and providing information to his own teams. That is part of his character, but it really set him apart from other coaches.”
Tuitupou’s sudden move to Worcester shortly before the 2007 World Cup brought his New Zealand career to a premature end after only nine caps. In recent times, the route from Super Rugby to the more affluent Gallagher Premiership and French Top 14 has been a busy highway, but this was not the case when Tuitupou left the Blues for Sixways.
With half an eye on his future career, Tuitupou is now very aware of the opportunities that European club rugby presents to the southern hemisphere’s players. “I never thought I would move abroad, and initially did so with four kids and my mum after my first marriage broke up,” he recalled.
“Back then rugby was more about the sport, but these days money talks and top players have much more of a chance to make a life from a career in the sport. That means boys will make their decisions with one eye on the future. If you can do something you enjoy and still make big money from it, you will be more likely to make a move for a big contract.
“Nowadays, with the way rugby is played you don’t know how long your career will be, so making money when you can is important. Someone playing as long as I have is quite rare as the game has moved on. There are loads of players in New Zealand, but there’s more teams and opportunities in Europe – especially in France and England.
Thank you @tu12pou and @philnilsen – it's been a pleasure!
Sam Tuitupou and Phil Nilsen confirm their retirements from professional rugby after long and distinguished careers #rugbynews #covrugby https://t.co/9YW9lN4zcD pic.twitter.com/F6N3cNAKX0
— Coventry Rugby (@CoventryRugby) March 6, 2019
“It’s also much easier for players to come here than it is for European players to go south, so it’s possible for players to weigh up making some money for a couple of years up here but still having time to go back and play.”
Tuitupou spent three years at Worcester where he formed a formidable midfield partnership with Dale Rasmussen. After leaving Sixways, Tuitupou spent 12 months with Munster prior to returning to England with Sale where he made 110 appearances over the next six seasons.
Former Sharks teammate James Gaskell breaks into a huge grin when Tuitupou’s name is mentioned, remembering him with a mixture of fondness and reverence. “You just can’t speak highly enough of the bloke,” he said. “The word is sometimes thrown around too easily, but Sammy really is a legend. He’s one of those blokes you’re desperate to follow into battle and you’d do anything for – as he would for you.
“I’ve never known anyone hit harder and there is definitely a bit of fear about him as he comes from places where you don’t see him. He did a couple of years at Sale after I left but was always injured when Wasps played them – which I was very happy about.
“I remember playing Scarlets in Europe and one of their guys caught the ball above his head. Sam’s eyes lit up and he flew in from nowhere and the bloke’s ribs didn’t survive. He’s a scary man. He’s also a real practical joker – you can’t turn your back on him for a second or you might end up with your shorts pulled down!”
Tuitupou’s love of rugby is clearly deeply ingrained – emanating as it does from playing union in the morning and league in the afternoon from dawn until dusk from the age of three alongside his brothers. It was therefore far from a surprise when he opted to extend his playing career by taking a two-year deal with ambitious Coventry, who were then in National One.
After a 10-year absence, his current club immediately gained promotion to the Championship. Director of rugby Rowland Winter remembers his club’s fourth former All Black making an immediate impact. “At the very first team meeting prior to the start of our National One promotion season there were 35 players in the room,” he recalled.
“It was also Sam’s first meeting after joining Coventry and the All Black was the one person who brought a notebook to the meeting. Within a week every player in the squad had a notebook in meetings – it was only a little thing but straight away he was driving standards of professionalism which is what he is all about.
“Sam has been a brilliant addition, not only for what he has done on the pitch and in training but also because of what having him around has done for the club. His impact has been truly phenomenal. He is hands down the best recruit I have made at Coventry, both for what he has contributed on the pitch and how he has driven our standards.”
In Coventry teammates Jack Ram, David Halaifonua and Dan Faleafa, Tuitupou is playing alongside three potential members of the Tongan 2019 World Cup squad. He is a strong supporter of the campaign to allow players to return to their rugby roots in the later stages of their careers.
“Players should be allowed to return from tier one to tier two nations as it really helps build the sport in those countries,” he claimed. “When those countries are playing in a World Cup they need to field their strongest players.
“I tried to play for Tonga at the last World Cup and was going to play sevens qualifying for the Olympics to qualify, but I got a knee injury the week before.”
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