Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Shift to Bristol may come back to haunt Steven Luatua

Steven Luatua is  to join Bristol - a club in danger of being relegated from the English Premiership. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steven Luatua is to join Bristol - a club in danger of being relegated from the English Premiership. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Judging players for career decisions they make feels horribly outdated - a bad habit dragged from a different era when there was a notion, misplaced or otherwise, of loyalty to the jersey whatever that meant.

And yet, as much as it's wrong to judge, it's hard not to in the case of Steven Luatua who has announced he will be joining Bristol after Super Rugby this year. His reasons for going are all the usual ones - time for a change, chance to see a new part of the world and enjoy a different way of life all with the added attraction of a bigger, fatter pay cheque. His choice ... fair enough.

But he's 25 and what he may not have grasped yet is that regret is a horrible friend. It lives with people, uninvited, long after it has outstayed its welcome. And he might have opened the door to it because he's walking away from the challenge of seeing just how good he could be. The shame of it is that he was genuinely becoming of interest. He was finding that physical edge he needed to complete his game.

He was beginning to understand how to impose himself.

If he'd given himself another year, developing as he was ... who knows ... he may have been irresistible to the All Blacks. They have long been sold on his athleticism and ball skills and were starting to feel that he was building that necessary crunch as well.

But he's rejected the chance to stay and continue to develop all aspects of his game. Instead, and there's no need to sugar coat this or be euphemistic, he simply won't fulfil his potential in England. No Kiwis ever do. They may relish the experience, fulfil their financial goals and learn plenty about the set-piece and gym, but become better players? Not usually. Not ever. English club rugby just doesn't provide the platform for it. They play too much and they have to play too often on heavy pitches with a wet ball. It's physical and demanding, but it is too often only that and plenty of New Zealanders have found that a couple of years after heading North, some of their finer skills wither and die.

Luatua looks a prime candidate to be one of those who doesn't thrive over there. His game is all about his natural athleticism and ball skills. If ever there was an athlete built to play in New Zealand it was him.

What is yet more curious is that he has signed to play for a club that are languishing at the bottom of the English Premiership. Bristol have a billionaire owner but he's reluctant to stock the ranks with buy-ins and right now they are hotly tipped for relegation. It is possible, then, that Luatua may arrive later this year to find himself in the semi-professional English Championship - an experience that could take him to places such as Doncaster, Rotherham and Ealing.

It is wrong to judge, but Luatua may find later this year when he's on a long bus journey from Bristol to Doncaster, with the rain lashing against the window and the traffic snarled on a motorway system that gave up the ghost a long time ago, that he can't help but wonder if he has done the right thing.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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