This story by RNZ.co.nz is republished with permission
Former All Black Charles Piutau will not be available to play for Tonga in the final Olympic Sevens Qualifier in Monaco.
Players with eligibility for more than one country can switch their international allegiance by participating in Olympic qualifying events provided they had a passport for the second country and complete a stand down period of three years.
Piutau played the last of his 17 tests for the All Blacks in 2015 and previously stated he would love to represent his Tongan heritage.
The Olympic Sevens Qualifier had been earmarked as a chance for the 29 year old to complete his switch from New Zealand to Tonga, alongside another ex All Black, Malakai Fekitoa.
But new Tonga Rugby CEO Peter Harding said that was unlikely, as the tournament clashed with the semi finals of the English Premiership on 19-20 June.
“As far as us getting Charles or Malakai or those guys, the only way we can do that is if they take a massive chance with their contracts which, let’s face it, that’s a risk,” he said.
“Whether they’re willing to take that risk it’s going to be up to them but it’s a big risk for them. I don’t know how many of those people we will get across – I don’t think we’ll get very many at all.”
Piutau is a key figure in the Bristol Bears side which currently tops the English standings seven rounds out from the playoffs, where the former Tonga Under 20s international plays alongside his older brother Siale, who captained the ‘Ikale Tahi at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Bristol coach Pat Lam has previously indicated his support for players being able to switch allegiance to represent their Pacific Island heritage, telling RNZ’s Champions of the Pacific programme that Piutau and Steven Luatua “could be a massive asset” to Tonga and Samoa.
But a spokesperson for the club confirmed that if the Bears make the playoffs in June “those boys will be playing for (the) Bears”.
Tonga was not a core side on the World Sevens Series circuit and if Piutau did not feature in Monaco the next time he would be able to switch his international allegience would be at the Oceania Sevens Championship in 2023, by which time he would be 32 and would miss out on representing the ‘Ikale Tahi at the 2023 World Cup.
Peter Harding was philosophical.
“If it was on a different weekend we wouldn’t have any trouble getting these guys across but realistically it’s not on a different weekend, it’s on a weekend where they most likely can’t come so that’s life,” he said.
“These people have private contracts with clubs, whether we’re playing or whether it’s the Olympic qualifier, and they have to look after their contracts and their family and if they do come sometimes they have to make decisions they would prefer not to be making but they have to make the right decision for their family and their future, it’s very difficult for them.”
There was still hope that Malakai Fekitoa would be able to play in Monaco. The Ha’apai-born midfielder was part of a Wasps team that were ninth and seemingly out of contention for the playoffs, which would allow the 28 year old to link up with the Tongan squad following the completion of the regular season.
Peter Harding hinted there were some other players also on Tonga’s radar to play in Monaco and praised the job that coach Tevita Tu’ifua and manager Richard Weightmann had done with the men’s sevens programme over the last two and a half years.
“Let’s make no bones about it, they’re obviously very good at their jobs and they’ve done a fantastic job under a fair bit of pressure, mind you,” he said.
“They’ve pulled a great programme together there and one thing I did do while I wasn’t involved was to talk the board into fully supporting them last year, while things were a little bit ropey and while they were deciding things, because their programme is of great value to Tonga Rugby.”