TANE Tu’ipulotu has an emotional second chance to line up against his home nation tonight when Newcastle Falcons play host to Tonga.
The 31-year-old centre never represented the Pacific island due to the International Rugby Board’s strict eligibility criteria, despite being born and raised there.
The regulations, tightened in 2000, prevent players from being selected by another country once they have appeared for one at either Test match, A-team or sevens levels.
In Tu’ipulotu’s case that other country was New Zealand, having moved there at 16 to improve his English and pursue a career as a promising pole-vaulter.
Winning the national schools title in his chosen athletic discipline, his sporting prowess swiftly transferred to rugby.
He lifted the Ranfurly Shield with Auckland, earning an invitation from the Kiwi selectors to represent their second-string national side the Junior All Blacks.
His father and uncles before him had all pulled on the Tonga shirt, but as he looks back on a decision which denied him the chance of following in their foot-steps Tu’ipulotu insisted: “There are no regrets.
“I had a big call to make and I did what I thought was best by opting to try and play for New Zealand, but I will always support the Tongan boys.
“At the end of the day it is a game of rugby and that is what I was thinking about.
“At the time I made my decision Tongan rugby had a lot of issues they were trying to sort out with the board and the coaching staff and it is always hard in the islands with the different things that happen there.
“The Junior All Blacks are the second-best team in New Zealand and I am proud of the fact I was able to get to that level.
“I had two trial games to get into the full All Blacks squad, and although I was unable to make it my dream was always to play for New Zealand. I got as close as I could and I will always be proud and happy about that.”
As fate would have it the Junior All Blacks’ Pacific Nations Cup campaign pitted them against Tonga, with Tu’ipulotu lining up against his homeland.
He added: “I played against Tonga in the capital city of Nuku’alofa and that was a tough one.
“I was very emotional about it, especially when the Tongan national anthem was played before the game and I was on the opposition team.
“I grew up listening to that anthem until I left at 16 and I still have enormous pride in it.
“All my family were in the stands watching me playing against my own country and it was a weird feeling.”
Now back in his second stint as a Falcons player and making a solid fist of it after a season in Japan, the former Wellington and Hurricanes star is buzzing at the prospect of this evening’s international encounter.
He said: “I was pretty excited when I heard Tonga were planning on coming to Kingston Park, but I didn’t want to build my hopes up too much in case it all fell through.
“I have watched Tonga play since I was a little boy being brought up on the island.
“My dad played for them, and most of my uncles have done the same. It is in the family and I know how much rugby means to the people there.
“Once this game was finalised I could start looking forward to it, and these past two weeks have been a huge high knowing the Tongans were on their way to the Toon. I can’t wait for 7.30 tonight.”