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FEATURE France and All Blacks in tug of war over latest star from New Caledonia

France and All Blacks in tug of war over latest star from New Caledonia
2 months ago

It takes approximately two hours and 41 minutes to fly from Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, to Auckland. The flight time from the Pacific Island to Paris is around 28 hours with a couple of stopovers thrown in.

It is an arduous journey, one familiar to a growing number of French internationals who left to play professional rugby in France. New Caledonia is a French Overseas Territory and every islander has French citizenship.

This short hop in a plane from Noumea to New Zealand was pointed out recently by Laurent Simutoga, a teacher at Lindisfarne College in Hawke’s Bay. “If they miss home, Noumea is only a three-hour flight away,” said Simutoga, who was born in the city 36 years ago.

‘They’ are the youngsters from New Caledonia who increasingly are being tempted to come to New Zealand to play rugby. Simutoga was the first to make the trip, in 2005, arriving at Lindisfarne to complete his academic and rugby education.

Patrick Tuifua
Tuifua was named man of the match on his France U20 debut against Ireland and also impressed against Scotland (Photo Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Simutoga subsequently went to France, where in 2007 he became the first New Caledonian to represent France at any level (U21s); he also propped for Stade Français and La Rochelle.

Since Simutoga enrolled at Lindisfarne, 32 more Caledonians and five Wallisians and Futunians (two other Polynesian islands that form another French overseas territory) have followed as the link between the school and the islands has strengthened.

In 2017 Lindisfarne sent a team to New Caledonia to compete in the Griffins Rugby Sevens tournament, an event that attracts sides from the Pacific Region and further afield. In 2019 a team from Pau, in south-western France, competed, as did Lindisfarne for the third consecutive year.

Tuifua has the typical profile of a New Zealand loose forward. Athletic, fast, aggressive, a powerful tackler; he’s got all the attributes to make a good No.8

For Simutoga, the chance to take a side to New Caledonia was not only an opportunity to give his pupils some invaluable rugby experience but it was also the occasion to catch up with family and friends. One of those family members is Patrick Tuifua, Simutoga’s nephew. A few months after Tuifua played in the 2019 Griffins Rugby Sevens, he started his first day as a pupil at Lindisfarne.

He was, says his uncle, “very shy” in his first months at Lindisfarne, but rugby brought him out of his shell. “He has the typical profile of a New Zealand loose forward,” says Simutoga of Tuifua. “Athletic, fast, aggressive, a powerful tackler; he’s got all the attributes to make a good No.8.”

It wasn’t long before Tuifua’s performances were noticed outside Lindisfarne. In September 2022 he was the only pupil from his school selected in the 50-strong Hurricanes Under-18 squad. A year later he was named in the Hawke’s Bay Magpies’ senior squad, along with All Blacks Brodie Retallick and Brad Weber, for that season’s National Provincial Championship.

Patrick Tuifua
Tuifua made his senior debut for Hawke’s Bay in the 2023 NPC and has trained with Hurricanes (Photo Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Now the 20-year-old Tuifua is at the centre of a tug-of-war between France and New Zealand, and Tuifua is unlikely to be last New Caledonian to find himself in such a situation.

Tuifua’s progress in 2021 and 2022 had gone unnoticed by the French Rugby Federation (FFR). It was only when the French TV station Canal Plus broadcast a Magpies’ match featuring Tuifua that he came to their attention. But the Kiwis had got in first, naming Tuifua in a New Zealand developmental squad in November 2023.

That spurred the French into action. Within a few weeks the 6ft 2in and 17½ stone Tuifua was playing for France U20 in the 2024 Six Nations. He was outstanding against Ireland and Scotland but didn’t play any more matches because he was required back in New Zealand, where is contracted to the Hawke’s Bay union until the end of 2025. “That was the plan. It was worked out, we had no choice,” explained Sébastien Calvet, the France U20 coach. “It’s not that we didn’t want to have Patrick.”

Tuifua is said to be “seduced” by Super Rugby and his ambition is to play for the Hurricanes. He also quite likes the idea of being an All Black.

Tuifua is evidently racking up the air miles because he was back in France at the end of March. He was hosted by La Rochelle who, according to Midi Olympique, have their heart set on signing him. But there are reportedly other suitors: Toulon, Stade Francais, Clermont and Montpellier.

Toulon seem particularly keen; Tuifua has visited the Cote d’Azur club and their president, Bernard Lemaître, recently intimated to the local newspaper that Tuifua was one of the players he dreamed of signing.

There is a potential obstacle in the path of all these Top 14 clubs and that is the player himself. Tuifua is said to be “seduced” by Super Rugby and his ambition is to play for the Hurricanes. He also quite likes the idea of being an All Black.

Jono Gibbes, in charge of the New Zealand U20 team, and well acquainted with French rugby after spells coaching at La Rochelle and Clermont, told L’Équipe newspaper: “Patrick remains eligible for the All Blacks. If the Hurricanes have recruited him, it’s because they believe in him. And that’s the straight road to the All Blacks.”

Peato Mauvaka
Tuifua could follow the likes of hooker Peato Mauvaka, a current France international born in New Caledonia (Photo Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Tuifua remains eligible for the All Blacks, despite having played for France U20, because the French Rugby Federation (FFR) has a developmental side which counts as their ‘locked in’ category when it comes to dual eligibility. The U20 coaching staff have expressed their hope that Tuifua will be free to play in July’s World Cup in South Africa, but might Fabien Galthié select Tuifua for France’s summer tour to Argentina that month? Capping him in one of the two Tests would bring to an end the All Blacks interest.

Tuifua’s father, Jean-Philippe, is the president of Vikings 988 RFC (formerly known as JSL Normandie Rugby), the club in New Caledonia where Patrick first played rugby. Asked about his son’s future recently, he replied: “A lot has happened for him in the space of a year…we’ve had some great offers in mainland France, but Patrick is only at the start of his training.”

Jean-Philippe Tuifua added that he believed it would be a mistake for Patrick to accept one of those Top 14 offers because New Zealand is where he has been developed. “In France, it’s not the same way of doing things. He needs to continue on his learning path.”

The likes of La Rochelle and Toulon might be able to offer Tuifua a bulging pay pocket but where they can’t compete with Kiwi sides is in the flight time.

There would undoubtedly be more money to be made in France but Tuifua senior may suspect that his son would find the cultural adjustment harder than in New Zealand, home to a significant Polynesian population.

One of the first New Caledonians to move to France was Willy Taofifénua, the father of French internationals Romain and Sébastien. He was 18 when he left Noumea for Mont-de-Marsan in 1988.

“The first months were difficult. Without my family I was a little isolated,” he recalled. “I had a lot of difficulty adapting. At the end of six months I wanted to go home, but I got my family to come to France and it got better.”

The isolation experienced by Taofifénua, and others who have come to France, is obviously less of a problem for New Caledonians in New Zealand. The likes of La Rochelle and Toulon might be able to offer Tuifua a bulging pay pocket but where they can’t compete with Kiwi sides is in the flight time.

Comments

21 Comments
k
kent 80 days ago

Having overseas possessions in 2024 is absurd. These Frenchies should have to give the New Caledonians their freedom.

m
monty 85 days ago

He’s made his mind up to play super rugby a smart move as he gets a straight run to the abs. The frogs boast a big pay packet but yet to show any inspiration to attract young pasifika players without wc winning status.

D
Dan 85 days ago

Why would you want yo play substandard SH rugby in empty stadiums for slave wages with supporters who only excel at spewing utter shite?

Yeah. You go to France and be better

D
Dan 86 days ago

What do you get if you cross a doctor with a fish?

A plastic sturgeon

J
Jmann 87 days ago

be smart - go black

J
Jon 87 days ago

Exciting place to be for the young fella. I expected he was French Polynesian when I saw him included in the France 6N squad (after seeing him in NZs), and therefor be strong grounds we might loose him to rugby down here. Good, in that he is good enough to warrant such a profile, and from a journalism’s fan interaction aspect, to finally get a back ground story on the fella.

Hope he has settled into NZ OK and that at least one rugby country will fit with him to help his development, which, if so, he should surely continue for a few years, and then that he can experience France to it’s fullest with a bit more maturity and less reliance on family than you would have at his current age. A good 3 or 4 years before he would be ready for International duty if he wanted to wait. Of course he already sounds good enough to accept a call up, and to cap himself, in the more immediate future (he’d have to be very very good in the case of the ABs), and he’ll get a great taste of that being with the Canes who have a bunch who are just a few years further into their career and looking likely Internationals themselves.

G
GrandDisse 87 days ago

Must be something when you are only 19 y.o and both NZ and France want you. Btw he wasn’t the only new caledonian in french U20 as Robin Couly also lived in Noumea until 17.
Hope he’s successful wherever he chooses to play.

G
Gaston 88 days ago

Article intéressant ! La question devrait régulièrement se poser pour les jeunes français originaires de Nouvelle-Calédonie, Wallis-et-Futuna et de Polynésie entre la Nouvelle-Zélande et la Métropole…
Difficile pour la fédération française de rugby de se positionner : soit le choix est fait de dénicher les jeunes talents et de les faire venir très tôt en Métropole, au risque de les déraciner, soit on prend le risque de se les faire “piller” par les All Blacks qui, telle une araignée, essaye de récupérer tous les talents des îles du Pacifique… À la France de se défendre en développant l’aura du XV de France et des clubs français dans ses collectivités d’Outre-mer !

M
MattJH 88 days ago

Wrong bay. He needs to come to the REAL BAY which is Bay Of Plenty and have a crack at making the Chiefs.

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