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The All Black who was 'supposed to' play basketball in America

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Loose forward Pita Gus Sowakula announced himself to the rugby world with a try on debut for the All Blacks against Ireland last year. But most rugby fans wouldn’t know that Sowakula is a dual international.

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After picking up basketball in 2009, Sowakula travelled down a unique career path – one that so nearly led him to the United States of America.

Sowakula played for Fiji at the 2012 FIBA Oceania Under 19 Championships, and went on to make his senior debut for the Pacific Island nation the following year.

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Having impressed for Fiji on the international stage, Sowakula “was supposed to get an offer” to play college basketball in America.

But basketball wasn’t his future, rugby was.

Sowakula “didn’t turn out going down” the basketball pathway, and ended up switching his focus back to rugby union.

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“When I first started off, I was supposed to get an offer to go (play) basketball in America, I got a scholarship,” Sowakula told RugbyPass.

“I was supposed to go for a scholarship over there, supposed to be in Iowa, somewhere in Iowa.

“The coaches or something got changed the year I was supposed to go and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh nah.’

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“As soon as that offer got turned down or that scholarship got turned down, I was back to my rugby and I was like, ‘I’ll give it a go for sevens.’

“It was aim to play for Fiji at that time, sevens was very big back home.”

Sowakula was working at a hotel resort in Fiji – and playing for the hotels sevens team – when his life changed forever.

The future All Black met a New Zealand-born agent who was checking out of the hotel. Eventually, that conversation led to the the now 28-year-old signing for Taranaki’s academy.

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“I was working back at a hotel back in Fiji and I met one of the agents who is a Kiwi, but he was in Australia.

“He was on his last day, he was checking out, about to go back to Aussie. We met at the front and he asked me if I play rugby and I just said yes.

“He gave his card and said we’ll keep in touch. He asked other work colleagues how I’d been playing and they said I played for the hotel sevens team.

“He said we’ll go back to Aussie and sort out your papers, and maybe three or four weeks after that the papers came through and he said, ‘You’re off to Taranaki.’ I didn’t even know where it was, I just said yes.

“I knew it was in New Zealand but I didn’t know where Taranaki was.”

The former basketball centre was recognised as a promising talent at the Taranaki Rugby awards after the 2017 season, and was picked up by for Super Rugby honours with the Chiefs.

Sowakula had been a winger before switching positions by becoming a loose forward with the Bulls, and now he’s an All Black.

Truly, Pita Gus Sowakula’s story is one fit for Hollywood.

Sowakula made a try-scoring debut for the All Blacks last year, and played one more Test match in the famous jersey during that series.

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But after being dropped from the squad, and not included in the All Blacks XV team either, Sowakula announced his decision to sign with Clermont in France for after the World Cup.

Sowakula has never been to France, but was visibly excited about the opportunity to experience a new culture overseas.

But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up on the All Blacks just yet.

“It’s just the right time for me to go.

“The All Blacks dream it still there for the World Cup or (the Rugby) Championship coming up.”

Sowakula has been nothing short of sensational for the Chiefs this season, as he played a crucial role in their rise to the top of the table.

Arguably in career-best form, Sowakula will come off the bench for the Chiefs in their final regular season clash against the Western Force in Perth this weekend.

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William 2 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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