Charles Piutau’s eyes light up when he realises that if Tonga make the 2023 World Cup they will be in a pool with South Africa, Ireland and Scotland.
With last week’s eligibility law change, allowing him and many others to switch to their nations of heritage, the Sea Eagles have landed with some tasty birds of prey suddenly now at their disposal.
If Tonga – who could soon have ex-All Blacks Piutau and George Moala as well as former Australian Israel Folau in their backline – beat an Asian qualifier, probably Hong Kong, and make the tournament in France they will be ready to shock the big beasts.
Former New Zealand star Charles Piutau has revealed he is keen to represent Tonga next year
‘Oh yeah!’ smiles Piutau when he hears the teams Tonga could face.
‘That’s the first time I’ve heard that possibility. What great teams!
‘Hopefully it makes it more competitive, and allows us to kick on further in that tournament, whether it’s a quarter-finals or something.
Piutau (L) is able to switch his nation of heritage after World Rugby’s eligibility law change
New Zealand – 17 caps (2013-15), 5 tries
‘Being able to turn over a Tier One nation would add to the World Cup, and would be great for fans watching too.
‘I’m excited to test my abilities on that stage again. An opportunity to play at a World Cup is something all players would like to be a part of.’
Piutau has been the poster boy for this law change. A 17-cap All Black in his early 20s, he has not played for New Zealand since 2015, so comfortably has completed the three-year stand-down period required now to switch.
He loved his time as an international – particularly his debut against France in New Plymouth in 2013, and the reverse fixture at the Stade de France later that year when he scored – but having not made the 2015 World Cup squad Piutau moved to Europe earning £500,000-a-year at Wasps, Ulster, and then almost doubling that salary at Bristol.
The poster boy for the change, Piutau’s (L) next move is not about money and will be emotional
But his next move, to Tonga, has never been about money. It will be emotional.
His older brother, Siale, won 43 caps for the ‘Ikale Tahi – the country of their parents, who Charles can proudly represent from January.
His mother Melenaite is from Folaha – a tiny settlement on the main island – and father Manako, who for a while was a church minister, was born on the island of Vava’u, 180 miles from the country’s capital Nuk’alofa, before moving even further north up the archipelago to the atoll of Kolofo’ou.
Piutau has not been able to see his parents, now in Auckland, for nearly three years due to Covid – but soon they will be able to watch him pull on Tonga’s red jersey.
‘It’s always been a place close to my heart,’ Piutau explains.
Bristol full-back Piutau was a 17-cap All Black in his 20s but has not played for them since 2015
‘My family were happy about the news and personally I’m happy that if I’m selected I can give back to Tonga.
‘This change is a start. It’s not the only or the main thing, there are many others, but it’s a step towards being able to bridge the gap between the Tier One nations.
‘With the possible players that may be available, it’s them being able to share their experience and knowledge can add to what’s already there.
‘If I can pull on the Tonga jersey it’ll definitely be a memory I’ll cherish.
He has admitted that being able to sport Tonga’s jersey soon will be a memory he will ‘cherish’
‘I’m happy not only for myself but for the possibilities of what it can do for Pacific nations.’
But as Piutau says, this should just be the beginning. Next the top nations must end years of neglect and tour the Pacific Islands.
In the 97 years Tonga have played Tests only Wales, France and Ireland have ever played internationals there – the last in 1999.
‘I don’t know the reason, but even just recently seeing New Zealand playing a game in Samoa, I don’t see why other Tier One nations can’t play Tests there as well,’ says Piutau.
For now, Piutau’s attention turns to propelling Bristol up from 11th spot during a tough season
‘For the local people there to experience a game like that would be great.’
But for now he has more pressing matters on his mind. Starting for last year’s table-toppers Bristol against Gloucester he needs to help propel the Bears from lowly 11th, having won just three of five so far in the Premiership.
‘I can’t put my finger on what’s not working,’ Piutau concludes.
‘If I could we’d be a lot higher in the table! As individuals we need to look in the mirror, work out where to improve.’