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 relayed 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 the other – who sit outside Premiership Rugby's £7 million per-team salary cap, Luatua reportedly collects £650,000 (NZD $1.3m) each season.

To put that figure in perspective, it sits on 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.

[Lima Sopoaga happy to leave All Blacks dream behind to give family better life]

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."

Steven Luatua. Photo / Photosport
Steven Luatua. Photo / Photosport

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 south-west university city in the past year has been helped by the presence of familiar faces.

Other than headline Kiwi acts – Luatua, Lam and the injured Piutau – Bristol's squad features former All Blacks prop John Afoa along with Hurricanes Alapati Leiua, Jack Lam, Tusi Pisi and midfielder Siale Piutau, who played for the Highlanders and Chiefs.

Bruce Reihana also 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. That was quite funny. 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."