Hale T-Pole back where he belongs with Stags
Hale T-Pole is back where he never thought he'd be, as a player at least.
The 34-year-old will run out for Southland against Tasman this afternoon six years after leaving the Stags to represent Tonga at the 2007 World Cup.
His journey in between times has taken him to Wales, a very brief time in Edinburgh (more on that later), four seasons in Japan and a season-long cameo with Northland.
Through it all, T-Pole has kept a place in his heart for Southland rugby.
"In the back of my mind, I wanted to come back and help out at some stage, maybe not rugby-[playing]wise, but I would love to come back to Invercargill. I've got a good history here. It's where my career opened up. I'll always have fond memories of my first game for the Stags, the year I made the Highlanders. I played some of my best rugby here."
T-Pole played 60 games for Southland between 2000 and 2007 after transferring from Otago. He played 19 games for the Highlanders between 2004 and 2007 and although the affro has a few streaks of grey in it these days, T-Pole still believes he has some rugby left in him.
He played alongside George Gregan for two seasons at Japanese club Suntory, and watched the way the former Wallabies captain looked after his body.
Some of Gregan's techniques have rubbed off on him and while he gets daily physio treatment, it's more about prevention than cure.
The passion to play is certainly still there.
It was in evidence in a pre-season game against Otago, where T-Pole earned himself a yellow card during a protracted skirmish, later berating himself because his slip in discipline had cost his team at least one try.
T-Pole's form at the 2007 World Cup attracted interest from clubs around the world.
He signed with Welsh club Ospreys and spent a season there before Edinburgh came calling.
It was while he was sitting in an Edinburgh hotel room contemplating an offer from the Scottish club that Suntory's former Australian coach Eddie Jones rang to offer him a job in Japan.
"It was funny because I didn't know Eddie, but Eddie knows everybody. He was chatting away to me and he knows how I play, and I was surprised that Eddie Jones even knew me."
The shorter distance between Japan and New Zealand, compared with Europe, helped sway T-Pole away from Europe.
He found the similarity in vowel sounds between Japanese and Tongan meant he was able to pick up the language, but his wife, Jo, found the lifestyle difficult, particularly after the couple's two sons - Toni, 4, and Viliami, who turns 2 next week - were born.
Since arriving back in New Zealand, Jo has bought a gym franchise for prospective and new mothers in Dunedin.
Being home offered a better family life, but it had been difficult giving up the strong financial opportunities that Japanese rugby offered, T-Pole said.
"In the last [Pacific Nations Cup] I still played some good rugby internationally. While I was [in Japan] in November and this year I got a call from one of the clubs and I'm wishing I could just say ‘yes' and go back and earn a bit more cash, but you've got to weigh up having a happy family with the money."
Those close to the Stags camp say T-Pole, whose early career was not blemish-free, has become a role model within the team, particularly for young Polynesian players, but it's something he prefers to do through deeds rather than words.
"I'm not the type to call out a fella and say ‘mate, you've got to do this'. I just get on with whatever I'm doing.
"If Goof [coach David Henderson] wants me to help out one of the young guys, I will.
" I just hope the boys look at my actions and if someone asks, then I'll help out."
T-Pole has missed a lot in Southland rugby during the past six years - two Ranfurly Shield tenures, a financial blowout. No shortage of dramas and delights.
But the more things have changed, the more they've stayed the same.
"To be honest, it's like I've never left. Maybe it would have been different if I came back straight after the Shield era, but when I walked back into the gym it was like six years ago," he said, laughing.
SOUTHLAND v TASMAN
Rugby Park, 5.35pm today
SOUTHLAND: Marty McKenzie, Keanu Kahukura, Bryan Milne, Cardiff Vaega, Tim Cornforth, Scott Eade, Tayler Adams, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Hale T-Pole, Michael Fatialofa, Josh Bekhuis, Nick Barrett, David Hall, Jamie Mackintosh (captain). Reserves: Talemaitoga Tuapati, Tuki Raimona, Craig Smith, Naulia Dawai, Nemia Kenatale, Willis Halaholo, Gareth Williams-Spiers.
TASMAN: Tom Marshall, Bryce Heem, Kieron Fonotia, Andy Symons, James Lowe, Hayden Cripps, Mark Swanepoel, George Stowers, Shane Christie (captain), Liam Squire, Joe Wheeler, Alex Ainley, Sila Puafisi, Quentin MacDonald, Tim Perry. Reserves: Francis Smith, Siua Halanukonuka, Tevita Cavubati, Tevita Koloamatangi, Kaide Whiting, Mike Wells/Billy Guyton, Mitchell Scott. Referee: Richard Kelly. Assistant referees: Michael Lash and Andrew Rowland. TMO: Keith Brown
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