Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: To the manner born

Charles Piutau's rise to a starring role for the Blues has been meteoric. Photo / Getty Images
Charles Piutau's rise to a starring role for the Blues has been meteoric. Photo / Getty Images

At family get-togethers in Mangere, Charles Piutau takes on a different role. When he is surrounded by his parents and siblings, he's no longer the All Black who's one of world rugby's rising stars.

He's the baby of the Piutau clan; the youngest of 10.

The Piutaus came out like a pack of unshuffled cards, five girls then five boys, the last of which was Charles who will forever be preserved in the conscious of the other nine as a perennial little boy, trailing behind the others in the backyard hopeful of even the slightest acknowledgement.

"And there I am being lucky enough to run out in the black jersey and being able to accomplish a few things," he says.

"We are close. We are all still in Auckland and we usually all come together for a family feed after church.

"It was good and bad being the youngest. I was spoilt and also I was picked on. My older brothers would be like 'oh yeah, why are you getting all this stuff?"'

When Piutau talks about family, it's with a smile - the opportunity to reminisce taking him to a happy place. It's apparent that family and church are everything to Piutau and the combination of the two has instilled in him the values and characteristics that provide certainty he can be at the top of the rugby business for a decade to come.

The speed of his rise to the All Blacks was scarcely believable. In 2012, he was in the Blues wider training squad. By June 2013, he was capped, and by November, he was starting to look like he had what it took to oust some more senior figures from starting roles.

A young man's head could have blown clean off its fittings after a rise like that. There have been others, young and probably just as talented, who have tasted a little of what he has and allowed it to corrupt their thinking.

But not Piutau. He is not a drinker, nor much of a party-goer. He didn't flirt with a more nefarious life growing up in Mangere as he was packed off to Wesley College with his brothers, where he excelled at just about everything.

"I was always a good kid at school. I ended up being head prefect and I think having rugby there kept me away from trouble. Now... I'm comfortable in what I want and what I am about. All the temptation is going to be around but it is not for me."

It's his moral fibre as much, if not more, than his raw talent that excites his senior peers. He impressed the All Black cabal on last year's end-of-season tour with his dedication, work ethic and willingness to learn and listen.

What's apparent is that Piutau fully grasps the enormity of the opportunity he has and is committed to taking it.

Senior players can sniff out early these days who in the junior ranks has what it takes to make it and who doesn't; the likes of Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu and Daniel Carter have been around for long enough to almost instantly spot potential trouble.

"They are not just backing their talent," veteran hooker Keven Mealamu said last year about the likes of Piutau and his Auckland team-mates Steven Luatua and Francis Saili.

"I see them working really hard and I respect that. I have played with some really talented guys [in the past] but they [current generation] are not just resting on that.

"They are looking to improve and they have a good chance of being in the jersey for a long time because that will help them play well in it."

It is fitting that Mealamu was the one to praise Piutau's work ethic, as the veteran hooker has been a major influence. The similarities between the two are many: they are both defined by church and family, both driven, both fiercely competitive and tough on the field yet disarmingly polite and meek off it and frankly, the sort of men any army general would want if he was asked to take Hell.

"I feel so lucky, privileged to be a team-mate," says Piutau of Mealamu. "There are many of us here [in the Blues] who watched this guy playing when we were kids. Everyone knows how great he is as a person, not even thinking about what he has done on the field."

Piutau understands that his success has made him a link in a chain; as he was inspired by Mealamu, the next generation of youngsters, particularly Pasifika kids, could be inspired by him.

"For sure. I love going out to the community and speaking to youth groups and sharing my experience and my life to show them that it is possible. If I can do it, then they can do it."

And boy, can he do it. Piece by piece, he built his profile last year. His first major offering was his accomplished 40 minutes at fullback against South Africa at Eden Park. Then he started unexpectedly against Australia in Dunedin and was outstanding. His next performance in Tokyo was so good that the All Black coaching panel had no choice but to keep him on the wing for the game against France, where he scored a brilliant solo try and created a second with a sublime offload to Kieran Read.

He attacked the space between two French defenders, forced them both to take him and somehow he flicked the ball out the back with his left hand.

It was one of those moments that made everyone - hard core to casual follower - realise that Piutau is something quite special.

But what the All Black selectors liked was that he had the confidence to do it. That pass was a big moment for them - they knew then Piutau was a test natural, mentally at home in the big arena.

"Earlier in my career, one little mistake and it would play in my head," says Piutau. "But I have learned that you have to let things go. You need your full concentration on that one moment.

"I was building (into test football) and I had been thinking of it as backyard rugby. You always try to think that you are in the back yard so when you get out there, you feel you can do anything, that you are going to trust yourself.

"More so, you know you can trust the players around you which is easier to do in the All Blacks when there are so many quality players around you. But I actually thought everyone should have been more amazed by [Read's] catch."

Actually, maybe Piutau doesn't play a different role at the family get-togethers. Even when he's with the All Blacks, it seems he too has this image in his head that he's the perennial little boy trying to impress his siblings in the backyard.

- Herald on Sunday

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