Lu­atua: Pro life short so money talks

Ex-AB dou­bles pay in Europe and says that tends to make your stay-or-go de­ci­sion for you, writes Liam Napier

Weekend Herald - - Your Sporting Weekend -

To a large de­gree, Steven Lu­atua agrees with Lima Sopoaga.

He chuck­les when Sopoaga’s hon­est re­marks around mov­ing abroad and lure of the All Blacks jersey are re-laid to him — “that’s Sops” — but doesn’t shy away from the crux of the is­sue.

Lu­atua would never ex­change his 15 tests for the All Blacks but he, too, fully grasps the rea­son­ing be­hind feel­ing the need to cap­i­talise on Euro­pean earn­ings, even while still in ath­letic prime.

“It is a re­al­ity that if the pay gap is that much more and you can earn two-fold over here and you’ve got a fam­ily in mind, some­times the de­ci­sion is made for you,” Lu­atua says. “You can earn well in New Zealand and live a good life but our stint in rugby is, if you are lucky, five to 10 years.”

As one of two mar­quee play­ers at Pat Lam’s Bris­tol — Charles Pi­u­tau is the other — who sit out­side Pre­mier­ship Rugby’s £7 mil­lion per-team salary cap, Lu­atua re­port­edly col­lects £650,000 ($1.3m) each sea­son.

To put that fig­ure in per­spec­tive, it sits on a par with All Blacks cap­tain Kieran Read’s an­nual rugby wage, ex­clud­ing en­dorse­ments. Had he stayed in New Zealand, on the fringe of the All Blacks, Lu­atua would have strug­gled to pocket half as much.

This is the con­stant bat­tle NZ Rugby fights on the open rugby mar­ket.

“With all the aware­ness around con­cus­sion, and aware­ness in gen­eral that we’re not go­ing to play for­ever, I tend to agree with Lima that it will start open­ing up and guys will start to see the re­al­ity that if the pay gap is go­ing to be that much dif­fer­ent then you’ve got to look af­ter the fam­ily.”

Ask the 27-year-old if he has con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of rep­re­sent­ing Samoa at next year’s World Cup — by qual­i­fy­ing through the sev­ens scene — and his pas­sion for the All Blacks shines through.

Only then is it clear the dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing es­tab­lished New Zealand play­ers when the in­evitable ques­tion of whether to stay or go arises.

“For Charles, I think it’s great he wants to rep­re­sent Tonga and for other guys who have rep­re­sented New Zealand in the past as well. But I made my bed with the All Blacks and I loved my time there and I wouldn’t change any­thing for it. I have Samoan her­itage but I wouldn’t trade in my time with the All Blacks for that at the mo­ment. That’s as far as I see it for now.”

Lu­atua’s in­her­ent love for the Blues hasn’t changed. And he is chuffed to see Ma’a Nonu re­turn next sea­son.

“I wasn’t sure what he was up to af­ter Toulon and his six-month hol­i­day. When you have that kind of flex­i­bil­ity to not play straight away and pretty much take your pick of what club to go to, that’s in­spir­ing.

“Full credit to Ma’a. He did his time in the black jersey; he came over­seas and looked af­ter his fam­ily and is still able to keep go­ing. Now he goes back to the Blues and hope­fully gets them a ‘ship. I’m all for it.”

Nonu’s hemi­sphere hop­ping and even­tual re­turn home could well be a path Lu­atua treads, too. For now, he seems con­tent.

“If Bris­tol will have me for the next cou­ple of years I’ll stay and do my time here. And then we’ll see what hap­pens.”

Lu­atua’s tran­si­tion to the south­west univer­sity city in the past year was helped by the pres­ence of fa­mil­iar faces.

Other than head­line Kiwi acts — Lu­atua, Lam and the in­jured Pi­u­tau — Bris­tol’s squad also fea­tures John Afoa, Ala­p­ati Leiua, Jack Lam, Tusi Pisi and Siale Pi­u­tau. As well, Bruce Rei­hana over­sees skills and goal kick­ing.

That re­u­nion of sorts has eased the bur­den on Lu­atua’s cap­taincy role.

“I didn’t ex­pect it. I kind of just wear the arm­band and I’m a ves­sel to talk nicely to the ref. Most of the de­ci­sions are made by the lead­er­ship group; the guys who run the cut­ter. I am en­joy­ing it. You’ve got to per­form with that re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“Those guys have a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence so when times get tough we’re not re­liant on one per­son, we find so­lu­tions to­gether.”

Bris­tol, with two wins from six in this Pre­mier­ship Rugby cam­paign, earned pro­mo­tion af­ter drop­ping one match last sea­son.

For Lu­atua, the move from the test scene to Eng­land’s sec­ond-tier Cham­pi­onship proved an eye-opener, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ev­ery­thing from op­pos­ing am­a­teurs hold­ing down 9-5 jobs to snow­fall re­duc­ing near all vis­i­bil­ity.

“We play in the wet and mud at other sta­di­ums. Some of these clubs share the same grounds so we’ll play one team there, and then an­other week we’d play a dif­fer­ent team there. It re­minded me of the good old days of grass­roots rugby.

“It’s good to play some high-level rugby again. I’m ex­cited to be play­ing in a com­pe­ti­tion that tests you week in, week out. I’ve been pleas­antly sur­prised by the skill set and phys­i­cal­ity. It’s dif­fer­ent to back home. They do their own thing here but they do it well.”

Photo / Getty Images

Steven Lu­atua leads his Bris­tol Bears side out as they re­turn to Pre­mier­ship Rugby with a match against Bath at Ash­ton Gate, Bris­tol, this sea­son.

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