Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Scaredy cat turns Lionheart

Patrick Tuipulotu says a Blues development game last year was when his confidence soared and "I stopped being scared''. Photo / Doug Sherring
Patrick Tuipulotu says a Blues development game last year was when his confidence soared and "I stopped being scared''. Photo / Doug Sherring

Of all the things it's easy to imagine the 1.98m, 120kg Patrick Tuipulotu being, scared is not one of them.

But for a long time, for all of his school days in the St Peter's 1st XV, he felt inhibited by an element of fear. He looked every inch the man but felt every inch the boy.

He smiles when he talks about it now, about how he used to be wary in the contact zones.

"I didn't really play that well during my school years," he says. "I was too scared, I think. Back at school, I was terrible. I used to cop it from my dad for not being tough enough."

He can smile because it's an absurd process trying to equate the thunderous beast he's become with the timid beast he once was. He's now an ever-willing ball carrier whose instincts are to run at and often over defenders.

If he didn't start the season on the All Blacks' radar, it wouldn't have taken him long to show up. He's a different sort of player to Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Dominic Bird and that's why he's in the All Blacks wider training squad.

The All Blacks want another Luke Romano-type, a crunching, tight lock whose hand is up for demolition duties. That's been Tuipulotu all campaign. The pre-season intelligence from the Blues indicated the rookie would be used sparingly, gently introduced.

Injuries to others changed that forecast but Tuipulotu became the real master of his fate by delivering well beyond expectation. He was given a chance and he took it, prompting the obvious question of how, in three years, he managed to go from scaredy-cat schoolboy to the cusp of the All Blacks.

"I'm quite a shy guy - not out-going at all," he says quietly. "I don't say much. I was always the tallest in my class but I didn't fill out until my fifth form when they gave us gym memberships at school. I was 16 when I played for the 1st XV. I was skinny.

"There was a game I played for the Blues development team against the Chiefs [last year]. I just carried the ball and made a few runs and I got my confidence and started running. I stopped being scared."

Although Tuipulotu wasn't impressed by much of the rugby he played as a younger man, most other observers clearly were.

He won a place in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team and graduated into the New Zealand under-20 side last year.

It's interesting, in terms of getting a gauge on his self-awareness, to hear his answer as to what he thinks won him those places.

"Probably my work ethic. I got straight up whenever I got hit and never complained or anything and got into the grind."

Born in Christchurch, Tuipulotu moved to Auckland when he was two. He's the oldest of four - two brothers and a sister - and still lives in the family home which recently moved from Ponsonby to West Auckland.

The surname might be Tongan, but all strands of the family are most definitely Samoan. That comes across in Tuipulotu's humility and absolute determination not to be carried away by his selection. Has there ever been a big-headed Samoan? Is there a Samoan dad in all New Zealand not drumming in good values to their children?

On the day Tuipulotu was picked in the wider training squad, he didn't get out of cooking the family dinner. It was his turn. "Stay grounded and don't forget where you came from," says Tuipulotu of what his parents said to him on Monday.

He knows what he has to do to survive the cull when the squad is trimmed from 36 to 31 early next month.

"Show them [All Black coaches] that I can get physical with the top-rated locks and players in the country. I want to show the selectors I can mix it with those guys.

"I think people coming straight out of school are coming into the game with the mentality that they have to be strong, physical and play like men.

"It starts pretty early and I know JK [Blues coach John Kirwan] is trying to protect me from playing too much at a young age but I feel like I can handle that workload. I want to be playing 80 minutes each week."

It's obvious some of the senior players in the Blues have had a major influence on Tuipulotu. He is only 21 and yet talks with the maturity of Keven Mealamu and has the focus of Jerome Kaino. The latter has had a particularly strong impact on Tuipulotu.

"A lot of it is just being mongrel," says Tuipulotu, on what he has picked up by playing with Kaino. "Off the field, he's an awesome guy, but on it, he's a different person. He leads the way and he's so easy to follow when he dominates.

"I felt like that when we played the Waratahs and saw him smashing people. I like to do that, too, and I was in behind him. When I told Dad about who was playing before that game he said, 'you have got to follow Jerome, do what he does'."

Today will be a big day in Tuipulotu's life. He'll be back in his place of birth, surrounded by the biggest names in the world game when he assembles for the All Blacks camp.

He's as apprehensive as he is excited. His year has taken a dramatic twist. He thought he'd maybe be on the edges of the Blues squad by now. Instead, it's the All Black periphery and arguably the toughest challenge he faces today is not being overwhelmed by being in the company of the likes of Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Conrad Smith.

"I had the same thing when I came to the Blues," he says. "With Benji Marshall there, I was star struck. But you get used to them [star names], I guess. You realise they are just like everyone else. Well, not too much different."

In a few years, there may be a procession of young All Blacks overawed to be in his presence.

- Herald on Sunday

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