Thursday 17 August 2017

'Collider' a perfect fit...

Tuitupou living up to meaning of Tongan name after being installed into Munster's midfield machine

While Sam Tuitupou played for the All Blacks, he is proud of his Tongan roots and aims to bring some South Seas' power to Munster
While Sam Tuitupou played for the All Blacks, he is proud of his Tongan roots and aims to bring some South Seas' power to Munster

Hugh Farrelly

ONCE Sam Tuitupou made his decision, that was it, he was gone.

Spring 2007, Tuitupou was 25 and approaching the peak of his powers. He had nine caps for New Zealand, performing with distinction as the All Blacks landed the 2006 Tri Nations title, and he was a valued member of the Auckland NPC and Blues Super rugby teams. There was every chance that with a good run-in, he would be involved in New Zealand's World Cup assault in the autumn, but Tuitupou just took off.

No awkward conversation with All Blacks coach Graham Henry, no farewell press conference or message on the internet. It was merely a case of taxi to the airport and away to a new life in Worcester. As sudden exits go, it was not quite a Post-It on Henry's fridge, but it wasn't far off.

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A LITTLE over a year ago, there was a fawning reception for Munster's new signing -- Springbok centre Jean de Villiers -- in Cork Airport. Irish rugby was still in the grips of 'Rocky Fever' following the extraordinary contribution of Australian Rocky Elsom to Leinster's debut European triumph, and Munster were looking for a similar overseas coup.

It never quite clicked. De Villiers struggled to slot in and lost his place for the Heineken Cup back-to-backs with Perpignan in December. After announcing his intention to return to South Africa, he put in some strong performances but could not prevent Munster's semi-final exits in league and cup.

Tuitupou's signing was a complete contrast. After a low-key announcement towards the end of last season in a back room at the UL sports complex, there was no major unveiling or photo shoot for the new season.

Tuitupou simply showed up and got down to work. And, together with winger Johne Murphy and prop Wian Du Preez, it quickly became apparent that this was a canny signing by coach Tony McGahan.

"It felt right straightaway," says the 28-year-old. "A lot of the boys have been together for a while and it helped me find my feet. My cousin Lifeimi Mafi has been a big help, he's told me how it works, what it means to wear the Munster jersey and the supporters have been fantastic.

"The Irish humour is pretty good, they like to laugh and smile a lot - no tlike the English boys. Tomas O'Leary is a pretty funny guy, Denis Fogarty, Donners (Donncha O'Callaghan) ... they sure like to take the piss out of you. They're still trying to work me out. I know they're looking for my weak spot but so far, so good," he says with a smile.

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WHAT'S in a name? Tuitupou, with five vowels competing for airtime, is a mouthful by any standards, but break it down by way of its Tongan heritage and you get a revealing picture of the man who bears that title.

Tui -- (v) to believe, (n) faith. Tupou -- a traditional title associated with the Tongan monarchy. And, perhaps the most relevant link is Tui'i -- (v) to run into, collide.

It adds up. Munster's new centre is defined by his commitment to his family, Tongan heritage, work ethic and, as anyone who has watched Munster this season would testify, a love for contact.

"I was born and raised in Auckland and had a very strict, religious upbringing," he says. "My Tongan heritage is very important to me. My parents are Tongan and my older brother and sister were born on the islands and we were always aware of where we were from.

"We were only allowed to speak Tongan at home and we weren't allowed to play on Sundays. Me and my brothers got into rugby from around the age of three or four; we used to play union in the mornings and league in the afternoon.

"I actually prefer league to union, I just love the physical side of it. I had a contract offer to play in Australia but my parents wouldn't let me go because I was still in school."

Tuitupou's progress in union was rapid. After winning world titles at U-19 and U-21 levels, he was brought into the Auckland professional set-up, graduating to the Blues with considerable success. His first cap duly arrived in 2004 when he came off the bench to take on England's World Cup-winning midfield of Mike Tindall and Mike Catt -- the All Blacks won with ease.

Over the next two years, Tuitupou was always in and around the squad and by 2007, the World Cup was a live option -- so why leave?

"Maybe I could have made the World Cup squad if I had hung around. I was just looking for something different. There was a bit of shock about me and Aaron Mauger leaving around the same time but I felt I needed to do it. There's always a lot of things to consider but the main one is trying to provide for your family. I had no regrets. I make my decisions and make the most of it, there's no point looking back."

There were plenty of offers on the table but Worcester ("I had never heard of the place") was chosen because Tuitupou knew the likes of Tevita Taumoepeau, Aisea Havili, Dale Rasmussen and Loki Crichton from New Zealand. His three years there were enjoyable and frustrating in equal measure: the lifestyle was good but the rugby was not and relegation was inevitable.

He planned to return to New Zealand but then the Munster offer came up. Tuitupou knew all about the province from Mafi and through another cousin, John Fotu, who was playing with junior club Cobh Pirates.

Fotu was something of a local celebrity in Cobh, living in a B&B run by Pirates die-hard Mickey 'The Spy' O'Sullivan and Tuitupou had a whale of a time when he visited.

"Yeah, I was up at the Paddocks a few times and I had some great fun with the boys there. I actually tried to register for the Pirates when I joined Munster but I wasn't able to. It's a pity because I would have loved to play for them. The rugby reminded me of when I was with Auckland and sneaking off to play village games back on the islands. It was full-on stuff, guys would be trying to take your head off and the referee might as well not have been there. I loved it."

Tuitupou has signed a one-year deal with Munster and chances are he will return home afterwards.

"I'm really enjoying it here but staying would depend on my kids. I have two boys and two girls back home, aged six, five, four and three. They're growing up now and I want be there. I ring home every morning and every evening and they are coming over at Christmas, which will be great."

Living next door to Mafi in Carrigaline, 20 minutes from Cork city, Tuitupou is doing a night course in holistic massage at the School of Commerce and already has his Level 2 coaching qualification.

That's for the future; the present is London Irish in the Heineken Cup. Tuitupou knows the Exiles well from his time with Worcester and one man in particular -- giant Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua.

"He's big boy, I played against him a good few times in New Zealand, a very good player. It's a big game, we have a strong pack and Ronan O'Gara and you play to your strengths. But we have potential out wide too, a lot of pace in Dougie (Howlett), Johne and (Keith) Earls which we will be looking to use as well. Losing to Leinster was a big disappointment but I'm the sort of person that puts things behind him so now it's all about London Irish."

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Tuitupou has yet to partake of the local porter. He used to enjoy the odd glass of rum but that was a while ago. His downtime involves hanging out in his neighbour's house, playing with Mafi's young daughter. However, Tuitupou has made a pledge to his Munster team-mates.

"I don't drink. I haven't gone out in Cork since I got here but I made a promise to the boys -- I will definitely have a drink with them if we win the Heineken Cup," Tuitupou adds.

Given Munster's tough draw, that may seem a big ask but when they landed their first crown in 2006, there was another unheralded, physical centre by the name of Trevor Halstead wearing the No 12 jersey. It's not always about high-profile signings when high expectations can lead to discomfort.

That's not the case this time around and Tuitupou and Munster look like a pretty good fit.

Irish Independent

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