Bristol’s Charles Piutau: ‘I’d love to play in a Pacific Islanders team’


There are split seconds in sport when world-class players show precisely why they are so special. In the 18th minute of last weekend’s Premiership game between Bristol and Newcastle there was a particularly striking example, one of those flashes of pure genius that illuminate even the bleakest of January afternoons.

The Falcons defence must have felt they had everything covered. Piers O’Conor, the Bristol centre, had just thrown a hasty, misdirected offload which had bounced loose within 10 metres of the visiting line. Cue a blue and red blur of irresistible skill: a deft one-handed scoop off the deck, a glorious dummy and an unstoppable surge past three opponents for a try no ordinary mortal would have contemplated.

Similarly strong, if less obvious, was the full gale force of relief experienced by the scorer, playing his first league game for four months. Even the planet’s most valuable rugby players have their occasional low moments and Charles Piutau, who arrived in Bristol in 2018 on a deal worth an initial £1m per season, admits to fearing that a frustrating achilles problem might never properly heal. “At times there is that doubt: ‘Am I fully going to recover from this? Am I going to get to a point where I potentially have to call it quits?’ Anyone who has had achilles problems knows it’s a tough injury to come back from. I was running in a lot of pain before. To be running freely and not having that pain coming through from my body makes a huge difference.”

Bristol are already feeling the reflected glow. Another shimmering talent returning to a team already stuffed with extravagant attacking potential is also a new year bonus for the entire league. If it wasn’t January and cold enough to freeze everyone’s fingertips what scorch marks might Piutau, his fellow superstar Semi Radradra, and the rapid Siva Naulago be leaving? Saturday’s top-of-the-table game at Premiership co-leaders Exeter, either way, should be a cracker.

Which raises another question: is the world of rugby missing the most obvious of promotional open goals? This week all the attention has been on whether this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa will proceed. Imagine if there was also a full-strength Pacific Island touring side who, every four years, assembled to test the pride of Europe? Piutau and his brother Sione, Radradra, Leone Nakarawa, Peceli Yato, Josua Tuisova, Sinoti Sinoti and co, coached by Bristol’s inspirational Pat Lam and granted a high-profile licence to thrill? It might unlock the precious visiting gate revenue that, shamefully, has been denied Tonga, Fiji and Samoa for decades.

The gifted Piutau has already represented his native New Zealand 17 times – he has a 100% win record as an All Black – but both his parents emigrated from Tonga to Auckland and he sees no obvious reason why dual-qualified players should not be allowed to bolster less well-resourced unions in future.

The 29-year-old full-back also loves the idea of resurrecting the Pacific touring team concept, which flickered briefly between 2004 and 2008 only to disappear prematurely. “You’re talking about the best of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga … that would be some entertaining rugby. I’m sure everyone of Pacific Island heritage would love to be involved with a tour like that.” Piutau, a member of the Pacific Rugby Players Welfare board, would certainly be among them. “For sure. I’d be proud to represent the Pacific Islands. I know I probably won’t be the only one. There are a lot of Pacific Island guys out there.”

It is for others to decide on stand-down periods and eligibility criteria but where there is a will, in Piutau’s view, there is a way. “Whatever it looks like, I think there should be more leeway for guys who are no longer playing for Tier One nations to help out their heritage nations. You want to have competitive and entertaining rugby and I think you’ll get that.”

At which point it is worth day-dreaming about the name Piutau one day appearing on an England team sheet. Young Zion Piutau is not yet six months old but, while Bristol is currently home, his doting father has yet to reconcile himself to the possibility of him representing the red rose: “We’ll see but it’ll be tough trying to support him if he does wear an England jersey! I guess it depends where he’s playing when he grows up.”

Good parenting is a subject upon which Piutau, the youngest of 10 children, has plenty of insight. Growing up in the unglamorous Auckland suburb of Mangere, his parents had five daughters followed by five sons – the brothers all slept together in the garage – and worked night and day to feed their family. Small wonder he gives daily thanks for everything rugby has given him since he first attended Wesley College – Jonah Lomu’s old school – and embarked on the path to sporting fulfilment. “The opportunity it’s brought for myself and my family has been immense and I’m truly grateful. To be playing and living the dream … I’m making the most of it until I have to retire.”

Propelling Bristol to even greater heights before his contract expires next year would also repay a large chunk of the club’s investment. This is a big month for the Bears, with crunch European ties against Connacht and Clermont Auvergne, assuming they happen, set to follow their significant trip to Sandy Park. “Exeter are where every club wants to be and we’re similar to them,” suggests Piutau. “Like Exeter we’ve come from the Championship and we have high aspirations. For us it’s a massive game to see where we are.”

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Which means, among other things, that Exeter’s defence should beware any more loose balls bouncing in Piutau’s direction. “The move last week obviously didn’t go as planned so it was just a bit of instinct. I was trying to make something out of it and was lucky enough to scoop the ball up. For me it was really just about enjoying being on the field again. I’d missed being out there with the team so much.”

Given a dry ball and a bit more possession, Bristol’s restored gem now fancies helping the Bears sparkle even more. “In this weather it’s more about just doing the catch-pass basics well but if moments do come when we can add a little bit of X factor that would be a bonus. You never know when your time in rugby is going to be up so it’s about enjoying the season and trying to achieve the goals we have. Winning some silverware is the best way to make some memories.”

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