All Blacks: Patrick Tuipulotu - A quietly spoken 127kg beast

By Gregor Paul in Chicago

Patrick Tuipulotu will have no Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick when he takes to Soldier Field against Ireland this weekend. Photo / Photosport
Patrick Tuipulotu will have no Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick when he takes to Soldier Field against Ireland this weekend. Photo / Photosport

There's a burden of responsibility sitting on Patrick Tuipulotu's unfeasibly large shoulders. There will be no Sam Whitelock or Brodie Retallick at Soldier Field.

There will be no Luke Romano either and instead, 23-year-old Tuipulotu, with 10 caps to his name, will be the All Blacks senior man in the boilerhouse as alongside him will be Jerome Kaino.

The veteran flanker has a decade of experience and two World Cup winners medals, but never has he started a test in the second row. This is new territory for him and a curious business for everyone else to see how well, or at least how quickly, he can convert to his new role.

Much of the game probably won't look too different to Kaino, but there will be parts where Tuipulotu will be his guiding light. There will be places to which Kaino will need to be led and little reminders provided that he's wearing No 5 not No 6- and responsibility for that lies with Tuipulotu.

He'll deal with that his way, though. There won't be many words exchanged. In fact there might not be any. Tuipulotu will just play his natural game and trust that's the best way to guide his vaunted partner.

"With Jerome coming in he's comfortable there,"says Tuipulotu. "I don't feel that way. I am the kid who grew up idolising him and I still do now. The way he plays, I feed off what he does. I don't feel like I am the senior lock with Jerome. I still look up to him.

"Come game time I know that excitement level will be where it needs to be. Normally it is me and the other locks trying to push the other two senior locks [at training]and help them, but this week it was about me having to get my mind right and keep [my emotions] at a level where I could train properly."

It was also a week in which he had to keep at the forefront of his mind, what has almost become a mantra for this All Blacks team - to be himself.

Young players come into the All Blacks, sit behind legends of the game and then when their time comes, they often feel they are obligated to replicate the style of the senior men they are replacing.

Coach Steve Hansen must spend at least half of each week assuring young players that's not the expectation - that they won their place in the All Blacks by playing their own way. If he had a dollar for every time he's told a young player just to be themselves...

It's a simple message and one that Tuipulotu has believed in since he first made the All Blacks in 2014.

"That is in my head all the time, especially in this environment," he says. "Everyone is their own man. I know my strengths and weaknesses and I want to show what I can do. That is what drives me each week."

So who is Patrick Tuipulotu? Well, he's a 127kg beast with the sort of raw power that neither Whitelock nor Retallick can match.

When he carries, he drives over the top of defenders and yet he has the athleticism for the All Blacks to genuinely consider him a potential option on the blindside.

He's blessed with a supremely good work ethic and high pain threshold that saw him play half a Super Rugby game this year with a broken hand. Call him a workhorse, an honest trooper, a grafter, a grinder a grunter the point is Tuipulotu will do his job all day with absolute and unfailing commitment.

He's quietly spoken and economical with his words. That's not a polite way of saying he's inarticulate or ineloquent - he gets his point across just fine without feeling the need to be verbose.

He has a Tongan surname but his heritage is Samoan and best not to make the mistake of getting that wrong. Best not to because he's fiercely proud of his bloodline and a little like Keven Mealamu in that he epitomises the Samoan paradox in that he's half gentleman, half warrior.

He would iron a shirt or mow the lawn for anyone who asked yet stick him on the rugby field and this gentle giant transforms into a bone-rattling beast.

And he's the guy who maybe was too hard on himself in his impatience to return to action this year after missing all of last year because of major surgery on his groin.

But for injury, he would most likely have gone to the World Cup, which is why watching it back in Auckland left him with mixed emotions.

"It had an affect on what I did at home during my recovery," he says. "I put on a bit of weight [he climbed to 140kg]. It was definitely hard watching the World Cup. It was inspiring but I was also thinking inside my head that I could have been there.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to come back and be that player I wanted to be at the start of the season. In hindsight I do think I pushed myself too early; that I came back into the game too early and didn't give myself a good chance.

"But it happened. I can't look back and I am happy with where I am at now. I still don't think I'm where I want to be but I am always trying to improve and I am basing my goals on where I left before I had surgery."

- NZ Herald

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