Charles Piutau says Tonga want World Cup glory ahead of Ireland clash

Charles Piutau says Tonga are aiming for World Cup glory as he prepares for clash against a strong Ireland side, after fulfilling his ‘dream’ as an All Black

  • Charles Piutau fulfilled his dream of making 17 appearances for the All Blacks
  • Piutau will be representing Tonga at World Cup, after World Rugby law change
  • Tonga are preparing for an upset on Saturday against a strong Ireland line-up
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

Charles Piutau fulfilled a lifelong personal dream by making 17 All Blacks appearances.

But on Saturday night, the former Premiership superstar will play for his Tongan-born parents Manako and Melenaite when he represents the Pacific Island nation at his first World Cup.

Piutau, 31, is one of the headline figures to have benefited from World Rugby’s change in eligibility laws at the tournament here in France. Now, he is targeting an upset of world No 1 Ireland in Nantes.

‘The All Blacks had always been my dream and something I wanted to do for myself,’ Piutau said. ‘Whereas I felt playing for Tonga was for my parents and my family. It was for the village I come from and for the next generation. I’ve always thought of the World Cup as the pinnacle of the game.

‘To be able to represent Tonga in that will be the best feeling ever. Just the thought of it excites me.

Charles Piutau is now representing Tonga at his first World Cup, thanks to World Rugby’s eligibility law change which allows players to switch nations if they qualify for the new country

The Tongan international (pictured above in 2020) played for Bristol Bears for over four years

That thought will become a reality for Piutau on Saturday evening.

In 2021, World Rugby confirmed players can switch nations after a three-year standdown period, so long as they qualify for their new country under the rules. Piutau was born in Auckland after his parents moved from Tonga to New Zealand and having last played for the All Blacks in 2015, he ticked every box.


H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt), C Murray; A Porter, R Kelleher, T Furlong; T Beirne, J Ryan; P O¿Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris.

Replacements: R Herring, D Kilcoyne, F Bealham, I Henderson, R Baird, C Casey, R Byrne, R Henshaw.

Kick off: 8pm, Saturday

‘My mum and dad grew up on the main island called Tongatapu,’ Piutau said, explaining his Tongan heritage. ‘Man, time is slow there. When you go there the islands are tropical with coconut trees everywhere. Everyone is relaxed, no rush. People live off the land, the plantations.

‘There is nice warm weather, nice beaches, and my first experience going there as a kid was thinking it was a big swimming pool. It was actually the Pacific Ocean!

‘I was swimming every day, enjoying the weather. Going when I was older you see that it’s not as developed as the other islands like Samoa and Fiji.

‘The people there look like they’re enjoying life.’ Piutau is one of nine siblings.

‘There were five girls first and then us five boys,’ he said. ‘Crazy! It’s a big family, man! I always grew up with lots of people in the house.’

World Rugby’s law change on eligibility has undoubtedly benefited the Pacific Island nations for this World Cup, especially Tonga and Samoa.

Piutau would have been joined in the Tonga side here in France by Israel Folau had the former Australian full-back not suffered a knee injury.

Even without Folau, Tonga look a dangerous outfit. The fact Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has named a full-strength team to face them is a reflection of the huge threat they pose.

Charles’ brother Siale Piutau warned him that Tongan rugby was ‘different’ after he was receiving mouth-watering contracts at Wasps, Bristol and Japanese club Shizuoka BlueRevs

Ireland thrashed Romania 82-8 in their opening match for the Rugby World Cup in France

‘To pull on the Tongan jersey was very emotional. To tap into the Tongan culture and be part of that is pretty cool,’ said Piutau, who starred in European rugby with Wasps, Ulster and Bristol.

‘Growing up in New Zealand we’d have it at home and in other places but it’s good to have the faith aspect in terms of religion tied in with the rugby.

‘Singing is popular in our culture so having stuff like that and praying every morning was a wow moment. That’s something we wouldn’t do in a New Zealand team culture.

‘We have our prayer. Our chaplain will chair scripture and then we’ll go into the rugby. There’s always prayer before we eat and hymns sung as well.

‘We talk about our culture and that’s what we base ourselves on. The pride we put into wearing the jersey is a massive part of representing Tonga.’

Piutau has earned big money in rugby. He received eye-watering contracts at Wasps and Bristol and will do the same again when he joins Japanese side Shizuoka BlueRevs after the World Cup. Tongan rugby is slightly different.

‘I’d always heard stories from my brother Siale when he was part of the Tonga team and I was with New Zealand,’ said Piutau. ‘Back then it was little things like not getting paid on time or going to the hotel and the rooms weren’t sorted. The first camp I went to it was certain logistical things like some of the kit hadn’t come in yet and the state of the hotel.

‘You definitely wouldn’t see New Zealand or tier-one teams staying in places we do. You see the reality of the resources teams like us have access to but you still try to give it your best shot and make it work. Our attitude is to try and do the best we can with what we’ve got.’

There are doubts on whether picking the influential Johnny Sexton against Tonga is a risk with a huge clash against South Africa just a week away in the Rugby World Cup

Piutau said there is ‘massive pride’ when they wear the Tonga jersey at tournaments

Dan Sheehan (pictured) will not play this weekend, but will be ready to face South Africa

The strength of so-called ‘tier-two nations’ is definitely improving. Japan have impressed at the last two World Cups. Georgia have beaten both Italy and Wales.

But for rugby to be a truly global sport, this World Cup needs the likes of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to shine and shine bright. Fiji impressed in a cruel opening defeat by Wales. Tonga face a tough draw in Pool B alongside Ireland, defending World Cup champions South Africa, and Scotland.

Ireland is Tonga’s first World Cup game. They will be going into it determined not to die wondering. Piutau is joined by fellow former All Blacks Vaea Fifita and Malakai Fekitoa in a Tongan side for Ireland which also includes Toulouse’s Pita Ahki.

‘Teams like Ireland and South Africa – man, they’re so dominant,’ said Piutau, who helped raise £50,000 in emergency funds while playing at Bristol last year after Tonga was struck by a vicious tsunami which devastated the island. ‘Looking at the Six Nations and seeing how good Scotland were I was like: “Oh, man.”

‘But what better way to be part of the tournament than to play against the best sides and give it everything you’ve got?

‘We could challenge Scotland and try and get a result there. We’ve got Romania which we’ll treat as a game to win. In terms of Ireland and South Africa, I think it’s about showing we’ve closed the gap.

‘I’ve seen Tonga play the All Blacks and it was 102-0. It’s a big gap and we want to show we can be competitive, hang in there with those teams, and play to a good standard.

Tonga players during the Captain’s Run at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, France

Ireland boss Andy Farrell’s team proved why they are one of the favourites in Romania win

‘Hopefully, we can come out with a result. If not, hopefully we can put pride in the Tongan jersey and Tongan kids all round the world can have that aspiration to follow in our footsteps.

‘There is a lot more catching up the Pacific Islands need to do to get closer to the tier-one nations. But the first part is helping ourselves and proving you can be trusted to be given more. It goes hand-in-hand with building trust with the unions and World Rugby.

‘Within our team there might be some young guys who I can give back to and inspire the next generation. When I was growing up in New Zealand, it was only about New Zealand.

‘Now, with rugby league and union, I’m seeing kids saying they want to play for Tonga and Samoa. Hopefully more guys will grow up with their first option being playing for the Pacific Islands.’

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