Born in Tonga, refined in New Zealand and most recently strutting his stuff in Japan, globe-trotting centre Tane Tu’ipulotu explains to Mark Smith why he is back for a second crack with Newcastle Falcons
AS an experienced surfer Tane Tu’ipulotu is used to swimming against the tide. Only now he is doing it in the sporting sense.
While a host of world rugby’s biggest names are setting sail for the bountiful Yen on offer in Japanese club rugby, the hard-hitting midfielder is ditching the Land of the Rising Sun to embark on his Tyneside return.
“To be honest it was a family move, more than anything,” says Tu’ipulotu, now 31 and minus the Afro hairstyle which became his trademark during a largely successful three-year stint in Falcons’ colours after arriving in 2008.
“As a family we had always been happy in Newcastle, but I don’t think you fully appreciate how much you miss it until you move away. Collectively we decided that Newcastle and the Falcons was the best place for us to be, and it is great to be back.”
Declaring his youngest son to be a “bona fide Geordie” having been born in the city, the softly-spoken centre reflects fondly on his solitary season with the Yamaha Jubilo club.
“I was based two hours south east of Tokyo, in a quiet city called Iwata,” he says. “It was next to the water so there was plenty of surf, and I enjoyed the whole Japanese culture.
“It is an incredibly interesting place, and the friendliness of the people really impressed me. They are very honest, they make you feel comfortable and they respect their elders very highly, which is similar to where I come from in Tonga.”
With father Otenili a Tongan rugby international in his hey-day, sport was always a key part of Tu’ipulotu’s modest upbringing. A recently-retired worker with the Tongan agricultural ministry, his father is credited with introducing potato farming to the Pacific island.
Tane’s brightest early promise came in track and field, where he represented his country at the Oceania Games. Moving to New Zealand as a teenager to improve his grasp of English, he won the national schools pole-vaulting title despite having to borrow a pole because he could not afford his own. Otenili, a former prop and No.8 who is now into his late 60s, has since resumed his love affair with rugby and is currently coaching the national Under-20s side on their American tour, while he has also signed up as team manager for the national side on the IRB Sevens circuit. For son Tane, enriched by his sojourn in the Orient, there is always the sense that rugby is more than just a means to put food on the table.
“The way Japanese rugby works is that the clubs are mostly run by big corporations, and the local players in the team generally work for the company,” he says.
“In my case at Yamaha Jubilo that meant the Japanese players worked for Yamaha. They covered a very wide spectrum – for example some guys would work in the accounts department and others would be on the factory floor assembling the motorbikes, jet-skis or snow-mobiles.
“As foreign players we had a privileged life and we could relax all day, but when the factory finished on a night we would be out there training. We all got Yamaha scooters to ride around on, which was pretty cool, and it was a great experience.”
With Japanese rugby often dismissed as a pension pot for stars chasing an easy twilight to their careers, Tu’ipulotu counters: “The level of rugby was actually pretty high.
“You have to be extremely fit, because the pace is quicker than the Premiership with the way they throw the ball around. There are not as many rucks and very few pick-and-goes, but the fields are dry all year and it is basically a running game from start to finish.
“There are a lot of big players there now, and we had a couple of ex-All Blacks like Jerry Collins and Mosese Tuali’i as the foreign boys in our squad.
“We did quite well by getting into the second phase of the Japan Cup where the top nine teams play off against each other.
“Yamaha had not qualified for that in the previous five seasons, so they were fairly happy.”
Embracing the linguistic challenge, too, he adds: “A lot of Japanese pronunciation is very similar to Tongan, so it was not too hard for me.
“I think a lot of the foreign players struggle with it when they first arrive, but for me it was pretty straightforward, and having Tongan as my first language was a huge help.
“I was on my own for the first three months before my family joined me, so I was having lessons every day.”
Faced with a big decision, he reveals: “I had the option to stay in Japan for another year, but we had got to the stage where Newcastle was the best move and we wanted to give it another go in England.
“I have been here for a week now, and on my second day I got out at Tynemouth for a surf.
“I just love it, and it is great to be back with the Falcons.”
Unperturbed by the possibility of Championship rugby after finishing last season on the bottom of the Premiership pile, he adds: “I followed the Falcons’ games online towards the end of last year, listening to the radio commentaries and reading the local papers.
“It was obviously a nail-biter and went right down to the wire, but they seemed to come strong towards the end and the boys here are very together as a group. That Falcons spirit is still there, and that it is a good starting position for us now.”