SOMEWHERE, in a parallel universe, Sione Tuipulotu will be wearing the distinctive red of Tonga against the dark blue of Scotland in this weekend’s crucial World Cup Pool B match in Nice.
That’s the country his father, Tuhefohe, hails from and where he spent most of the first four years of his life, and he admits that he did put some serious consideration into swinging that way before eventually throwing his lot in with Scotland – where his maternal grandmother Jacqueline Anne Thomson was born – when he signed for Glasgow Warriors back in the summer of 2021.
The Australian-born 26-year-old admits that it is a rather odd feeling preparing to play for one of those nations against the other, but the notion that there might be some sort of split loyalties is soon dismissed when it is suggested that his brother, Ottavio, may choose to go the other way.
“My littlest brother is 19. I could end up playing him the next time we play Tonga. If I do, I’ll kick his head in,” he quipped. “I think he will have the Scotland jersey on this weekend, but he might just wait until the game is finished to see the result first!
“I’m not sure where he will end up. If it was up to me, all my brothers would come play with me in Scotland,” added the Tuiuplotu, who is the middle child of five, with two older sisters (Kiesse and Keanna) and two younger brothers.
Tuipulotu’s middle brother, Mosese, was linked with a move to Glasgow Warriors earlier this year before eventually agreeing a contract extension with the Melbourne Rebels and pledging his allegiance to Australia, while Ottavio is also in the Rebels set-up and currently on the comeback trail from an ACL injury.
“After I was born in Melbourne, mum and dad moved back to Tonga for four years then back to Australia when I was four,” Tuipulotu explains, when asked just how close his personal link is with the Polynesian archipelago. “We went on holiday to Tonga every two years after that.”
“Did the thought of playing for Tonga cross my mind? Definitely. When I got to Japan [to play for Yamaha Jubilo in 2019] it was something that I thought about. I played with my cousin there, Viliami Tahitu’a, who was a Tongan international, and he was going to ask me to pledge my allegiances to Tonga.
“I just wasn’t sure at that point but it’s so good to see some of those big players like Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau going back to play for Tonga. It gives so much hope to the country back home. I want to do my part in that on Sunday, by playing hard against them for Scotland and showing my passion for Tonga that way.
“I’m sure they will be trying to take my head off in the same regard, which is part of the game. It’s something you’ve got to love – I’m looking forward to competing against them.
“Playing against your father’s country is a tricky one,” he did concede. “No matter how much you try not to think about it, it’s always kind of there in the back of your mind. But I’m fully focused on getting the victory for Scotland tomorrow. I’m sure it’ll be emotional during the anthems and stuff. Of course, I’ve got a lot of love for Tonga, and that side of my heritage. But tomorrow I’m fully focused on doing my best to get a win for Scotland, to get our World Cup back on the road.”
Tonga lost 59-16 to Ireland in their World Cup opener, but they made life hard for the world’s top ranked team in the first half before running out of steam. Given that they sat out the opening weekend of matches meaning they hadn’t played for a month, they are expected to be a more cohesive and battle-hardened unit this week, with head coach Toutai Kefu having picked the same starting XV, whilst adding the power and experience of former Wallaby second-row Adam Coleman to the bench.
With their players scattered across the globe, it is always a challenge for Tier Two nations to hit the ground running at the start of tournaments anyway, but they now have a big game under their belt and another week in camp together, so Scotland will be aware that this weekend’s assignment is fraught with danger.
“It’s massive [to have that time together],” agreed Tuipulotu. “For those Polynesian countries, it gives so much hope to the islands back home. We saw Fiji last week and what it did for their people. It gives them hope, uplifts them and gives them something to be happy about.”
While Tuhefohe is back in Melbourne keeping an eye on Ottavio, his mother, Angelina arrived in France just before the South Africa match, and was able to provide some light-relief as well as a morale-boost in the aftermath of that 18-3 defeat.
“It was actually quite good because my mum doesn’t know anything about rugby, so she thought we all played really well,” he smiled. “I kind of knew we didn’t but when I saw her after the game and she said: ‘Oh, you guys all played so well’, so it was refreshing and picked me up for that 20-minutes. But then I was back to ground zero when we got on the bus.
“It was nice to see my mum after that. That’s the best things about mums, they pick you up when you are feeling down.
“My Dad will wake up and watch the Tonga match, so I’ll wait for his message after the game,” he added. “I know he’s got both jerseys in the house … I’ll have to ask my little brother which one he’s got on. I’m sure he’ll be going for us.”
Since the turn of the year, Tuipulotu’s midfield partnership with Huw Jones – earning them a shared nickname of ‘Huwipulotu’ – has been a key feature of Scotland’s vaunted attack, but that combination has been broken up this weekend with Chris Harris getting his chance in the No 13 jersey.
Tuipulotu is quick to dismiss any notion that breaking up his pairing with Jones could impair Scotland’s back play.
“In the early days when I was getting my first couple of caps for Scotland I was playing under his wing, and I’ve learned a lot from Chris both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively,” he said.
“I was a bit of a rogue defender back then and he’s always put his arm around me and helped me, and tomorrow I feel very comfortable with him alongside me. We’re going to out there and have a great performance together.
“The people I’ve been around on this journey, people like Chris Harris and Sam Johnson back at Glasgow, who have walked the path before me, have helped me iron out those parts of my game.
“I’d like to think I’ve worked hard to fit into the mould of being a good Scotland player.”