When Charles Piutau left New Zealand aged just 24, the barbs came thick and fast. Back in 2015, All Blacks simply didn’t up sticks at his age. Europe was for the wizened, those whose time in the black jersey was done, seeking a hard-earned sackful of Euros, Mediterranean sun and perhaps another medal to carry them into retirement.
For the past eight years, Piutau has been with Wasps, Ulster, and then Bristol, before finishing up at Ashton Gate this month, and signing with Shizuoka BlueRevs in the Japanese top tier.
In time, he became a trailblazer. One of the earliest mid-twenties All Black regulars to broaden his horizons. At first, though, the buccaneering full-back was an outlier.
I’ve proven to myself I can continue to grow as a player outside of New Zealand. Sometimes the mindset, or what’s said is, you leave New Zealand to finish your career.
“It wasn’t the norm at the time,” Piutau tells RugbyPass Plus. “There were a lot of comments being thrown around – ‘he’s just chasing the paycheque’ or, ‘we don’t need you here anyway’. It’s always going to happen in rugby, comments or people criticising.
“What matters most are the comments of my close circle. I know why I’ve made the decision; I enjoy it and don’t look back. I hope to inspire other young Pacific Islands kids back home. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it at every club I’ve gone to, been able to flourish and continue to grow.
“There’s nothing wrong with staying in New Zealand and trying to play as many Tests as possible. You come to understand everyone is different and has their own things they want to achieve.”
In that sense, Piutau is an unassuming figurehead. The youngest of ten children – five girls and five boys, in that order – born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, others have sought his counsel on life in the European maelstrom.
When Steve Hansen left him out of the All Blacks squad to defend the World Cup, his decision to move away calcified.
“In my head, I thought if I could play that World Cup then I’d be able to tick a box I’d always wanted to, then challenge myself abroad. Financially I’d be secure as well with the contracts that were offered.
When I first came into the city, a lot of people were wearing Bath jerseys.
“I’ve proven to myself I can continue to grow as a player outside of New Zealand. Sometimes the mindset, or what’s said is, you leave New Zealand to finish your career or retire, but I felt like, coming over at a younger age, I’d always wanted to keep developing, keep testing myself. I’m maturing now, being able to learn how to lead and mentor other younger guys coming through.”
These past two seasons have been grim for the Bears, light years beneath the lofty standards set since Pat Lam steered them to Premiership promotion. They went from Challenge Cup winners and back-to-back league semi-finalists to mid-table stupor. Ninth this year, tenth the year before. A meagre reflection of the talent in their squad.
“It has been disappointing, we definitely wanted to be playing for, and winning, more silverware,” Piutau says. “I guess if we knew the answer, we’d be playing in a semi-final and final.
“There were a lot of errors individually and indiscipline which set us on the back foot. Looking at how close the table was towards that fourth spot, two or three games could easily have gone the other way for us, and if they had, we’d be in a different position, but that’s the beauty of the Premiership. Every week is a tough game, nothing is guaranteed. If you’re able to get some wins and take away any points, they all add up and can define your season.”
Piutau’s Bristol career ended with a rousing win over Gloucester, though he spent the final 10 minutes of it in the sin bin after a deliberate knock-on. His family were with him on the pitch after the match, as the Bears saluted their leavers. And with his scintillating skill and tack-sharp rugby wit, Piutau has given Ashton Gate a wild ride.
The club and the city got to him in an arresting way, too. Bristol is one of the biggest, and best backed, beasts anywhere in Europe, noise raining down from the towering main stand, where bumper crowds flock every other weekend. Piutau is hugely proud of the role he has played in it all.
I think of my parents and what they’ve done in their lives, moving to New Zealand to give us kids a better opportunity.
“The growth, the rebranding of the Bears and how that’s kicked on. The club has kind of solidified itself in the Premiership whereas in the past there was a lot of back and forth between the Premiership and Championship.
“Being able to see that and what it’s done for the supporters, knowing the team is consistently in the Premiership, and the pride I’ve seen around the city, people wearing the jersey around Bristol. When I first came into the city, a lot of people were wearing Bath jerseys. Now I’m seeing kids and adults supporting the team and wearing the Bristol jersey with pride.”
On Sunday, Piutau will farewell the English game as part of a sparkling World XV backline, coached by his former mentor Hansen. The Galacticos include Bristol team-mate Semi Radradra, hulking Wallaby Marika Koroibete and All Black centre Ngani Laumape, and face the Barbarians in a Globetrotter-style exhibition match at Twickenham.
Then, he will look towards France, and the fulfilment of a deep-rooted dream. Though raised in a gritty Auckland suburb, Piutau’s Tongan identity burns bright. After serving World Rugby’s three-year international stand-down period, he wore the scarlet colours of the ’Ikale Tahi for the first time last July. How he longs to represent his family at the World Cup, the grandest stage of all.
“It’s massive,” he says. “For my parents, I think of them and what they’ve done in their lives, moving to New Zealand to give us kids a better opportunity in life, more options. To connect back to my roots and give back to the culture and the country. The work ethic is one of the best attributes I’ve taken from them. I’m probably still miles off it but they set the standard for me and were a great example.
“I know my parents have mentioned my family were just very proud after I played my first game. As a brother or a son, you don’t need anything more. It’s the best feeling to hear those words from your family members.”
Two star-studded international line-ups, coached by Eddie Jones and Steve Hansen, lock horns at Twickenham on Sunday. Buy your tickets for a blockbuster Barbarians versus World XV match here.
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