How chance led to sevens stardom

SEVENS STAR: Belgium Tuatagaloa.
SEVENS STAR: Belgium Tuatagaloa.

From Apia to Mangere, from a boxing gym to a rugby field and from the heartbreak of his father's death to the bosom of a loving Pakeha family in Churton Park - Belgium Tuatagaloa feels "truly blessed" as he prepares for the biggest weekend of a rugby career that started by pure chance.

Rewind three years and Tuatagaloa had just shifted south from Auckland on a scholarship to study sport management at the New Zealand Institute of Sport in Wellington.

Born in Auckland, the fifth in a line of five sisters and six brothers, change was nothing new for Tuatagaloa: he was raised in Samoa till 5, then ferried to live with his aunt in Mangere, where he attended college.

A promising boxer, his dream was, and still is, to follow one of his Samoa-based older sisters into the police force.

And so it was in the summer of 2010 that Tuatagaloa was out running near the flat he'd been living in for a year when he stumbled on a place that would change his life.

"It's funny how I started rugby," he said.

"I was out for a run because I wanted to be a police officer, so I was running past the Petone Rec and they were having pre-season rugby training.

"They said they were looking for numbers and if I wanted to join in, so I said: OK, might as well.

"I didn't know how to pass the ball; I didn't know how to tackle, nothing about rugby.

"I was a water boy for the rugby at Mangere College. I loved following rugby but I never played.

"It wasn't my intention to get involved because I always wanted to do boxing.

"So, yeah, I played rugby for the first time in 2010. I just thought I'd take the opportunity."

Taking opportunities is a family trait, with three older sisters working or studying in Ireland, America and Samoa.

A younger brother played sevens for Northland this year, while three remain back in the islands.

"I was born in Auckland and then went to Samoa when I was 5. I came back here in 2005 to go to college and it was pretty hard for me. I stayed with my dad's sister and they took me to school.

"I still want to be a police officer but rugby came out of nowhere and has taken me on a different path. I can always go back and do the police but I have an opportunity right now, so I may as well take it."

It didn't take long for Tuatagaloa to start turning heads in Wellington club rugby where the newbie was plonked on the wing for Petone, and told to run hard and fast. A year later the Wellington selectors whistled him into the union's academy and, last year, New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens pounced on his raw potential.

But Tuatagaloa's story would be only half told without mention of Paul and Susan Hendry, a couple who took him into their home halfway through his first year of rugby.

"I stay with a Pakeha family in Churton Park. They have been a huge help since my dad passed away. I was just starting rugby when he passed and I was going to give up, and this family, Paul and Susan, they have helped me so much through my whole rugby career. I couldn't afford to stay in Petone, so I told the club I was moving back to Auckland, but the club captain said: nah, we want you to stay, and they organised this family.

"To be honest, I call them my parents. I call them mum and dad. ‘They have just been such a huge help."

Tuatagaloa will be the sole Wellington player in the New Zealand team though that status is about to change after he recently signed a two-year contract with Canterbury.

It's a bitter-sweet "opportunity" and he is almost apologetic about moving away from Wellington and makes special mention of Lions coach Chris Boyd as having helped his development.

The Dominion Post