World Cup Ones to Watch – Siale Piutau

by Rhys Knott

Tongan centre come winger Siale Piutau may be best remembered after the 2011 Super rugby season for sparking an all out brawl when he punched opposition flanker Michael Rhodes twice in the head during the Highlanders home fixture against the Lions.

Piatau however received no disciplinary sanctions for his part in the fracas, despite being found guilty of throwing the punches.  SANZAR judicial officer Nick Davison QC said that because Rhodes was seen to be “placing his (Piatau’s) head and neck at serious risk of injury” then Piatau was compromised and in a highly dangerous position and as these where “exceptional circumstances” Piatau should escape sanction, Rhodes however was found guilty of a “dangerous headlock” and the South African was banned for 6 weeks.

Siale’s younger brother Charles represented the Junior All Blacks earlier this year, having previously represented Tonga’s U20 team 5 times.  Like Charles, Siale is a powerful ball carrier with a surprising turn of pace for such a physical player, he stands at over 6 feet tall and weighs over 15 stone (97 kgs).  Although Siale is 6 years older than the 19 year old Charles, who lit up the Junior World Cup in Italy back in June, he only made his Super rugby debut last season.  In 2010 he represented the Chiefs in 1 game after 4 years playing provincial rugby for Counties Manukau, during which he has recorded 50 caps, in the 2011 season he moved the Highlanders.

The Highlanders official website extols the virtues of Piatau as a ball carrier and calls him “an elusive centre” who can “beat players with shear speed”, but the photograph on his profile of him “fending off Northland’s Dean Budd” shows that he can make his own space when there is none for him to exploit, even if it involves brushing aside covering back rowers.  As a franchise the Highlanders didn’t have a very impressive Super rugby campaign and considering they had the All Black’s reserve stand- off Colin Slade in their ranks it would be reasonable to have expected them to score more than the 31 tries which they managed.  Piatau was their 4th highest try scorer and the 2nd highest try scorer in their back division, crossing the white wash on a rather modest 3 occasions in his 14 appearances.

Piatau has only represented Tonga twice, once as a starter and once as a substitute and both of these appearances came in their 2 World Cup warm games against Fiji in the last fortnight.  In the first game when Piatau came off the bench Tonga where on the receiving end of a 27-12 score line and when Piatau started in the 12 shirt they overturned the result and ran out 32-20 winners.

Tonga have always been known for their powerful and confrontational style but they have usually been found wanting in the more subtle areas of play and while they have much higher profile players if they give Piatau the opportunity to add a touch of craft and “elusiveness” to their midfield I’m sure he will surprise more than a few opponents who will be concentrating on containing Tonga’s traditional “crash and bash” approach in centre field.  Piutau can mix the rough with the smooth though, as both Michael Rhodes and Dean Budd will attest to.

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