Rugby’s mil­lion-pound man on why his fam­ily comes first and how dance is key to his suc­cess

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - THE TITLE - By Nik Si­mon

THE ti­tle in­stantly jumps out: ‘$EED or GR€€D? The Book Most Pas­tors Want You to Read!’ It sits at the top of Charles Piutau’s book col­lec­tion in his Belfast apart­ment, next to ‘An In­ten­sive Course in Ton­gan’, and a col­lec­tion of other books linked to the church.

‘I’ve just started read­ing it,’ says Piutau. ‘It’s pretty key for me at the mo­ment.’

Piutau was born into a work­ing class Pa­cific Is­land fam­ily in Auck­land. He was tem­po­rar­ily adopted as a baby and was one of 10 sib­lings whose bed­rooms spilled into the garage of their four-bed home.

Now, in a tale of rags to riches, he is about to be­come the high­est paid player in the world.

‘Re­li­gious books are my go to,’ says rugby’s first mil­lion-pound man. ‘Seed or Greed is writ­ten by the same guy who wrote “From the Pitts to the Palace”, which is about Joseph be­ing sold into slav­ery by his broth­ers. It teaches you not to let money and greed over­take who you are. You might want to buy a Fer­rari... but do you ac­tu­ally need it?’

Piutau drives a player-is­sue car from Ul­ster’s spon­sors. Still only 25, he has sac­ri­ficed his ca­reer as an All Black to help feed his fam­ily.

He will leave Ul­ster for his record-break­ing £1m-a-sea­son con­tract at Bris­tol next sum­mer — join­ing his el­der brother, Siale — and has left be­hind New Zealand where he grad­u­ated from the same Auck­land col­lege as Jonah Lomu. A mer­ce­nary act? Far from it.

‘Ev­ery Pa­cific Is­land kid is on the same boat,’ he says. ‘Some would rather stay back, play X num­ber of Tests and be­come a great All Black. For me, I came to the con­clu­sion that, man, that wasn’t me. My fam­ily is go­ing to be with me for­ever and they’re the peo­ple clos­est to me. Rugby’s not for­ever and I want to be able to look af­ter my par­ents.

‘They left their friends and fam­ily in Tonga to give us a chance to chase our dream. My dad was a bar­tender, bat­tery com­pany worker, taxi driver. He had all sorts of jobs at the same time to look af­ter us kids. Peo­ple will have their opin­ions but they don’t know the sac­ri­fices my par­ents made.

‘They gave us the best child­hood. It never crossed my mind to think, “Man, we’ve got 12 peo­ple liv­ing in a three-bed house”. We had so much fun; play­ing games, hid­ing things on the roof. There was al­ways some­one laugh­ing or cry­ing — usu­ally me be­cause my broth­ers were too big to tackle!’

Life in Belfast is some­what qui­eter. Piutau lives by him­self in an apart­ment over­look­ing the dock­lands. He has been to the lo­cal church with Peter Brown, the Ul­ster lock, and teaches him­self gui­tar in be­tween train­ing ses­sions.

Be­sides a drone, which he likes to fly over the har­bour from his bal­cony, his only self-in­dul­gent pur­chase is a framed pair of box­ing gloves signed by Manny Pac­quiao.

‘I like guys like Pac­quiao who go way be­yond their sport and have a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on their com­mu­ni­ties,’ he says. ‘Ob­vi­ously the other sports­man I idolised grow­ing up was Jonah.

‘Back at school, you saw pho­tos of his jer­seys up in the din­ing room and thought, “Maybe, one day, mine can be up there too”.

‘The teach­ers would al­ways tell us sto­ries about Jonah. It was a board­ing school and, at the time, he had a bed that was spe­cially made for him be­cause he was too big.

‘I saw all his ath­letic records but I never got close to them. I wore his No11 jersey... that was re­ally cool. I would shave an 11 into my eye­brow — two lines — be­cause, ap­par­ently, that’s what Jonah did.’

Back at Wes­ley Col­lege, Piutau led the school dance troop. ‘It sounds funny, but dance was one of the best things I did at high school,’ he says, be­fore of­fer­ing up a ren­di­tion of ‘Des­pac­ito’ on his acous­tic gui­tar.

‘Back then it was cheesy stuff or slow jams for the girls, like Zapp’s ‘I Want To Be Your Man’. We weren’t the best but one of my broth­ers went to the dance world champs.

‘For me, it helped with my rugby; foot­work, co­or­di­na­tion and stuff like that. But the big­ger thing was how it forced me to talk in front of peo­ple. Is­landers grow up in this cul­ture where they re­spect their elders and never an­swer back. When they get older, they find it harder to speak out or voice an opin­ion. They might look at the floor when they’re talk­ing and it’s mis­in­ter­preted as dis­re­spect, but it’s the op­po­site.

‘Dance was the start of me be­com­ing a leader.’

These days, Piutau dances around op­po­nents with his foot­work or smashes through them with his Poly­ne­sian power. He is the best winger in the north­ern hemi­sphere and, this Fri­day night, he will be ter­ror­is­ing Wasps — his for­mer club — in the open­ing round of the Cham­pi­ons Cup.

He is a per­fec­tion­ist — per­son­ally phon­ing af­ter this in­ter­view to clar­ify his fa­ther’s jobs — and a model pro­fes­sional; un­til a half-eaten KFC bucket slips out of the fridge as he fetches a bot­tle of wa­ter.

‘Oh jeez,’ he laughs. ‘I hope my coaches don’t see this! Left over KFC, that’s my favourite. I get one bucket for my­self —three chicken pieces and eight wings. Us Is­land boys like our food. Grow­ing up with all my sib­lings, our par­ents had a pretty big fridge to fill.

‘It will be nice when I move to Bris­tol next year be­cause my brother’s wife cooks up good is­land meals; taro and things like that. Maybe we’ll start roast­ing whole pigs to re­mind us of home.’

The classy winger will move to Eng­land with his girl­friend, Lineti. The cou­ple will marry next sum­mer and have plans to set up a new home in Bris­tol, 11,000 miles from New Zealand, as proud mem­o­ries of Piutau’s 17 All Black caps be­come an ever-more dis­tant mem­ory.

‘I loved ev­ery sec­ond with the All Blacks,’ says Piutau, who was left out of the 2015 World Cup squad af­ter an­nounc­ing his first move to Europe would come in 2016.

‘I still have my jer­seys back at home. They were the best feel­ings. I played 17 Tests and was lucky enough to win them all.

‘Hear­ing I didn’t make the World Cup was the hard­est phone call I’ve had in my ca­reer. I was sat in the kitchen with my par­ents and I’d been wait­ing by the phone for 10 days. I just re­mem­ber the words, “Sorry, we’re go­ing with some­one else”. My heart dropped. It was my dream back then, but that’s the re­al­ity of sport.’

That leads on to the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion: in this unique story of faith meet­ing for­tune, will we ever see Piutau back in an All Black jersey?

‘To be hon­est, prob­a­bly not,’ he says, show­ing no tone of re­gret.

‘If there was a time, it would have been at the end of this sea­son, in­stead of go­ing to Bris­tol.

‘I’m re­ally happy. I’m 25 and I’ve left that chap­ter be­hind. I’ve left that there. I just want to stay here now. Yeah... that’s how it is.’

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