Former All Black Charles Piutau has laid bare the vast differences between playing for Tier One and Tier Two sides - from quality of kit to nutrition - after switching his allegiance to Tonga a year before the World Cup.
Piutau, who left Bristol Bears this summer after five years at the club, won 17 caps for New Zealand between 2013 and 2015. Born in Auckland, Piutau qualified for Tonga through his parents and made his debut for the national team in July last year, having last appeared for the Kiwis more than three years ago.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Piutau admitted. “It is a different experience coming into a Tier Two nation with the resources that we have, the time we have together as a team. It’s just about helping the guys around me in the environment to get better. The best thing I can do for the team is be at my best and try to perform.”
Asked what had surprised him the most, Piutau replied: “It’s the lack of resources. We come into the Tonga team and we hardly have any kit, one pair of shorts to train for the week, always having to wash everything every day. We might not have snacks to replenish ourselves after a gym session. Sometimes we might have to cover our own flights to get to training camps. I think sometimes all of those off-field things can add up.
“Before we started in the Rugby World Cup camp, we were struggling to find rugby balls. We were using replicas from the regular shop and it wasn’t the real thing. We are grateful for now being in a regular environment where those things can help us prepare for the game and give us a good shot.
“What I have been a part of before with the All Blacks set-up, all you needed to worry about was playing that game and doing your role in that jersey. You could come [to training] naked and end up with enough clothes that you don’t need anything - and get a watch.”
One of five former All Blacks who started for Tonga against Ireland, along with Vaea Fifita, Augustine Pulu, Pita Ahki and Malakai Fekitoa, Piutau noted that before Tonga had arrived at their training base in France they had not even been able to train with proper match balls.
Fekitoa had said before Tonga’s first World Cup game that being in France and supplied with the best equipment had led to “the best few weeks for us” in training, adding “we get things like everyone else now, in a nice hotel, better balls, better food.”
Despite the limited resources and a tough first fixture in the tournament against the world’s No 1 side, Piutau felt positive about how Tonga had managed those challenges, noting how those players who have been representing Tonga for some time have continued to push past the lack of resources during their Test careers ahead of facing Scotland on Sunday.
“That is just part of the difference between ‘Tier One’ and ‘Tier Two’ nations. The one thing I have been pretty proud of is seeing how resilient these guys are in the Tonga team. We have played a lot of Tests and they just carry on trying to do their best for Tonga and to perform on the field.”