No split loyalties for Tuipulotu in Scotland’s must-win clash with Tonga

The Stade de Nice sits next to the local branch of Ikea, and it is fair to say eve-of-match press briefings often come flat-packed at the Rugby World Cup. Scotland offered up the usual pleasantries before their crucial Pool B encounter with Tonga, confirming their disappointment with the opening defeat by South Africa, along with a firm intention of making amends against the Pacific islanders on Sunday evening.

In the case of Sione Tuipulotu, though, this is a meeting laden with extra significance, beyond Scotland’s urgent need to trouble the scorers in a fiercely competitive pool. The 26-year-old inside-centre, who lines up with Chris Harris in a refreshed centre pairing, was born in Melbourne to a Tongan father and Australian mother before spending the first four years of his life on the Pacific island.

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The remainder of his upbringing was in Australia, and Tuipulotu says his father, Fohe, and youngest brother, Tavi, will be awake in the middle of the night watching on TV, with Scotland and Tonga jerseys both in the house. “I think my little brother will have the Scotland jersey on,” Tuipulotu says, adding with a smile: “He might just wait until the game is finished to see the result.”

Tuipulotu qualifies for Scotland via his maternal grandmother – who hails from Greenock – and his mother, Angelina, will be in Nice for the game. Tuipulotu reveals he “definitely” considered declaring for Tonga before committing to Scotland. “When I played in Japan it was something I thought about,” he says. “I played with my cousin there, a Tongan international [Viliami Tahitu’a], and he was going to ask me to pledge my allegiances to Tonga.

“I just wasn’t sure at that point, but it’s so good to see some of those big players like Malakai [Fekitoa] and Charles [Salesi Piutau] going back to play for Tonga. It gives so much hope to the country back home.”

A centre who combines enormous power with refined skill, Tuipulotu started out playing in Australia before arriving at Glasgow Warriors, via Japan, in 2021. His Scotland debut, in October that year, appropriately came in a 60-14 victory over Tonga at Murrayfield.

Tonga’s Charles Piutau tries to shake off a tackle from an Ireland player in their World Cup match.

It is well documented that the Pacific island’s resources have been boosted by former All Blacks such as Piutau – and Tuipulotu was informed that they intend to target him. “I want to play hard against them for Scotland, and show my passion for Tonga that way,” Tuipulotu says. “I’m sure they will be trying to take my head off in the same regard, which is part of the game. It’s something you’ve got to love.”

What the referee might make of Tonga trying to take Tuipulotu’s head off or vice versa remains to be seen, but he is intent on having ball in hand to spark Scotland’s attack into life, with bonus points an absolute priority. “I’ve had many conversations with Finn [Russell] since the [South Africa] game, and we were so frustrated we just couldn’t get things going – considering we are a team who quite often do get things going,” Tuipulotu says.

“Yes, South Africa put pressure on us, but we have turned the page on that and are focused on Tonga. For me that’s about looking after the breakdown and when we do have the ball, carrying it with aggression.”

Tuipulotu also believes his defence has improved immeasurably since arriving at Glasgow, partly through playing alongside players such as Gloucester’s Harris. “When I got to Scotland I was quite a raw talent,” he says. “To be a Test player, you’ve got to polish those edges out of your game, and it’s taken me a while.”

Loyalties may be split back in Melbourne, but there will be no doubt in Tuipulotu’s mind when kick-off arrives. “You can possibly lose one game, but you can’t lose two,” he says. A ready-made cliche? When it comes to the pool of death, undeniably true.