Professional sport is littered with stories of stars falling on tough times once the roar of the crowd has been silenced. But Neil Reid reports a new generation of All Blacks have turned to property in a bid to secure the financial security of their families
Augustine Pulu's multi-million dollar property investment portfolio is a world away from his upbringing.
The two-test former All Blacks halfback is one of a growing number of high-profile players who have signed up to the Life After Sport mentorship programme offered by high-profile realtor Don Ha.
The scheme has seen the likes of Pulu, and current All Blacks Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi receive investment mentoring and guidance from Ha – the chief executive of Re/Max New Zealand, who has sold more than $1 billion in real estate.
The trio are now all in the process of building up sizeable investment property holdings.
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And by Pulu's and Ha's reckoning, the money the ex-international has earned through rugby – including currently playing professionally in Japan – could be matched, if not dwarfed in the long-term, by what he could potentially earn in property investment.
The 30-year-old Pulu was no stranger to showing emotion on the field during his career with the All Blacks, the All Blacks Sevens, Chiefs, Blues and Counties Manukau.
And the married father of three can't help but get emotional when recalling the reality of his family's life when he was growing up in south Auckland.
"I won't lie ... me and my family were really poor," Pulu told the Herald on Sunday from his home in Tokyo.
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"We grew up at a time when we were staying in a house [with a couple of rooms], with heaps of us, there were over 10 of us.
"We grew up pretty poor ... just simple things like struggling to have footwear for school. Growing up now with kids, I can't even think of letting my children [not have everything they need]. But we didn't have that money ... back in the day."
It was also a struggle to ensure he and his siblings had food for school lunches.
Pulu's young family won't face the same struggle the future All Black did as a young boy.
Shortly after signing his first professional contract he started saving to get his parents into their own house; a goal he has since achieved.
Looking back on his own upbringing, he also wanted to ensure he did all he could to make sure any future children of his own didn't go without.
"Getting the opportunity to be a professional rugby player, my plan was always to do well and not just with the playing, but more I had the mindset that it was more after footy," he said.
"[My upbringing] is what made me strive to be [where I am today]. It is hard for me to think that I was in those shoes. I am blessed to get the opportunity to play footy, the opportunity to put food on the table for my family."
Performing to the highest level on the rugby field has been Pulu's comfort zone over the past decade.
Talking publicly about his personal finance is something that he concedes doesn't come so easily.
But like Laulala, he has opened up about the benefits of what he has learnt and gained from Life After Sport in a bid to encourage others – and especially Pasifika players – to take steps to safeguard them and their families.
"I am putting myself out there ... and hopefully I can help people."
The power of changing lives
Don Ha says he is a proud product of south Auckland and a staunch sports fan.
His bio on the Re/Max NZ website tells of his "incredible rags to riches story". After his family escaped war-torn Vietnam he grew up in Otara.
In his teens, he set himself the goal of breaking into the NBR's Rich List, a target he achieved before he turned 40.
But like many others in the business field, he was hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis, losing his estimated $60 million fortune and eventually going bankrupt.
He has since rebuilt his personal fortune, and as part of a commitment to help others established Life After Sport along with Jonah Lomu's ex-agent Phil Kingsley Jones.
Ha said part of his motivation was hearing of former sportspeople who had fallen on tough times.
"They feel defeated," Ha said. "And society doesn't recognise them as a hero once they go to that level."
The goal of the programme was to ensure those involved invested wisely so when their careers ended – either by injury, form or age – they were well set up for life.
Ha does not charge the players for any of the services they receive, which aside from real estate mentoring also includes taxation and accountancy services. Members are also given the opportunity to undertake real estate agent training and given education on running businesses.
The only income his company receives is via vendor commissions from listings sold to the players. The scheme will shortly be widened to athletes from a range of other sports.
Ha described Kingsley Jones as "a great mentor" and almost a "grandfather" to all the sportspeople he was closest too.
Kingsley Jones said while investing might seem "scary" to some, players he had dealt with were blown away by the "potential of what they could earn" via Ha's advice.
One of the first high profile players Kingsley Jones introduced Ha to was Pulu.
It proved to be slow-burn before Pulu took the plunge.
Pulu said it was more than a year before he felt comfortable with trusting someone to give him investment advice with the money he had earned by putting his body on the line.
"Don's values in life are all about family, giving back and opening up doors for people," he said.
At the time Pulu was playing for the Blues and renting a house in Ellerslie.
It was also at a time when he was thinking about not being in the situation of other ex-players who ended their careers without a financial nest egg.
Pulu credited the programme to him now achieving investments that he "never thought in my life I would be able to do".
Recent purchases include two new homes in Pokeno, 53km south of Auckland.
Ha said Pulu had been one of the success stories of his programme, adding he was incredibly proud to be involved in changing a family's life.
"When I met him he was renting a house in Ellerslie for $850 a week. Today ... he has a multi-million dollar portfolio that earns almost the same as his [former] Blues salary," he said.
"When you change their lives, you change their family. It is so inspiring.
"I do it because most of the boys are from south Auckland, and I was from south Auckland. I was brought up in a poor family, and they have been brought up in a poor family.
"Augustine Pulu [and what he has achieved] is just incredible. Nepo will achieve similar."
"Be prepared for the worst but hope for the best"
Nepo Laulala knows first hand how fickle a professional sporting career can be – and the importance to plan for it all to come to a shattering halt.
In early 2016, then aged just 24, the All Blacks prop was given the devastating news that his career was over after a training collision with a teammate saw him snap three knee ligaments, as well as rip a quadricep off the bone.
At the time the tighthead prop had played four tests for the All Blacks and was being spoken about as a future mainstay of the national side's front row.
After initially being told he would be out for at least the remainder of the 2016 season, a further diagnosis suggested his knee would never recover to handle the rigours of front row play.
"It was really devastating," he recalled. "I hadn't really thought about my future after rugby."
After the shock sunk in, Laulala vowed to do two things; prove the medical specialists wrong and do all he could to secure his family's financial future.
"It was a blessing in disguise," he said. " It put me on a path to be a bit more prepared.
"I wanted to try to see if I could make it back and hopefully help someone else who went to that dark place and give them hope that there is a chance of coming back and doing what you love."
In an inspiring example of success in the face of potentially crippling adversity, Laulala has triumphed on two fronts.
By August 2017 he was back in the All Blacks and has gone on to earn 26 caps; including six at last year's Rugby World Cup.
Away from the field, he is also in the process of amassing an impressive property portfolio.
Laulala was introduced to Ha more than two years ago by Kingsley Jones.
Laulala's first purchase was a five-bedroom house in Hamilton which he lives in with his wife Loriana and their 1-year-old son Cassius.
He had always wanted a big house so that when his parents or other family members travelled to see him play they had somewhere comfortable to stay.
The emotional magnitude of the purchase left a mark on Ha.
"When we got him this house he was almost in tears," the realtor said.
Laulala now owns several other investment properties purchased via the guidance gained by Life After Sport, saying they would help provide "for the security of my family going forward". More purchases were likely.
He said Ha had taught him to take a chance, but ensuring any purchases were made after calculating net property gains and the potential of locations he was looking at investing in.
"It feels good knowing that your hard work is going into something that is pretty secure," he said.
Laulala describes the moment when he feared his career could be over, and to plan for a rugby-free future, in 2016 as a "wake-up call".
For his colleagues, he hoped the Covid-19 outbreak and ramifications it has had on all professional sport – including pay cuts for New Zealand players and uncertainty over contracts of others signed to big-dollar deals overseas – would also be a timely reminder.
"Be prepared for the worst but hope for the best," he said.
Every dream has to end
For almost a decade Pulu has been living every young rugby player's dream – earning a good living from playing the 15-man code, as well as reaching the pinnacle in New Zealand of playing for the All Blacks.
He has also seen countless other young prospects disappear from the scene almost as quickly as they were heralded as the 'Next Big Thing'.
And that has proven a constant reminder to Pulu of just how precarious career rugby can be.
"What I am living is a dream," he said. "And I keep saying to myself, 'It is a dream, and it is going to be done sometime soon, including sometimes through injury'.
"That is the main thing to prepare myself so when footy is done, I can live happily with my family."
Pulu isn't ready to rest on his laurels on or off the field.
While working on a new playing contract in Japan, his focus is also firmly on moves he is making away from the playing arena.
"The journey hasn't stopped," Pulu said.
"For me the real journey starts when you finish footy. It is when that normal income that comes in every month [stops]. That is what I am working towards and being an icon to people ... that if someone like me can do it, they can too."