Tusi Pisi's rugby journey is an unconventional one.
It has ebbed and flowed from Massey High School to Christchurch, to the south of France and Tokyo via a famous test win over the Wallabies in Sydney.
Pisi has had his path blocked by Carlos Spencer, complemented by George Gregan and opened up by Tana Umaga and Eddie Jones.
And now, a decade after he shared a spot in the 2003 New Zealand Colts with Jerome Kaino and Stephen Donald, Pisi will get just his second Super Rugby start.
Fittingly it will be against the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday, the team and venue he and his two rugby playing brothers, George and Ken, used to dream about as they grew up west of Auckland.
Some have wondered how a 30-year-old who plies his trade for Suntory in Japan has unseated 2012 All Black Beauden Barrett at first five-eighth.
Pisi's not the best-known Hurricane, but he just might be the most experienced and is almost certainly the most worldly.
Born in Samoa, he is the eldest of four brothers, George, Ken and Mackenave.
Tusi's parents moved him and George to Auckland as youngsters, and playing for North Harbour and the Blues quickly became the goal.
"We lived out west and went to Massey High School; it's a co-ed, but the rugby's pretty good," Pisi said yesterday. "The likes of Troy Flavell, Ron Cribb, Fa'amalua Tipi, Chris Smylie, and Anthony Tuitavake all went there. We all kind of grew up together.
"We used to watch Frano Botica and Willie Walker and we got our opportunity to play for North Harbour, but it was more than that. With Super Rugby we always wanted to make the Blues."
George, a wing/fullback, would go on to do just that, but for Tusi, the presence of Spencer made it a tough assignment.
In 2006 Pisi played pivot for the Pacific Islanders, playing tests at Lansdowne Road, Murrayfield, and Millennium Stadium.
Back home, a solitary cap when he replaced Tim Bateman off the bench for the Crusaders in 2007 was his only Super Rugby gig.
And so he headed to Toulon and hasn't looked back.
"I've had the pleasure to experience, not just different cultures, but different rugby environments in France and Japan. I feel blessed the way things have gone," he said yesterday.
At Toulon he studied his halfback, Gregan, and took counsel from coach Umaga. In Japan he has caught passes from former Springbok No 9 Fourie du Preez and found a lifetime mentor in former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones.
And off the field he and wife Tala have welcomed into their world now-three month old son Theron.
Ten tests for Samoa, including a win in Sydney in 2011, and his subsequent form at the Rugby World Cup, are testament of how much Pisi has grown his game under Jones' guise.
"Eddie is close to me. He's my mentor and to have that type of person looking over you and your game and telling you what to work on and being straight up and honest has been huge," he said.
"After every game about ten minutes after I get to the sheds the text from Eddie comes through on how I played, what I need to work on. That's really special to me."
So is his experience of playing in the test arena, a big factor in his decision to have another crack at Super Rugby when Mark Hammett came calling last year.
"The difference between the time you have to make the right decision at the crucial times has been great for my confidence . . . to come back and play Super Rugby."
Pisi's selection will be questioned. A few defensive slips aside, Barrett remains a class act, a big reason the Hurricanes have won four straight.
But a gamble? Not when you look at the resume of a player who can't wait to play the team he never made.
HOW THEY LINE UP
HURRICANES: Beauden Barrett, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith (c), Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Tusi Pisi, TJ Perenara, Faifili Levave, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Jason Eaton, Mark Reddish, Ben May, Motu Matu'u, Ben Franks/Reggie Goodes. Reserves: Dane Coles/Ash Dixon, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, James Broadhurst, Jack Lam, Chris Smylie, Reynold Lee-Lo, Andre Taylor.
BLUES: Charles Piutau, Frank Halai, Francis Saili, Jackson Willison, Rene Ranger, Chris Noakes, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Steven Luatua, Ali Williams (c), Calum Retallick, Angus Ta'avao, James Parsons, Tom McCartney. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Anthony Boric, Brendon O'Connor, Jamison Gibson-Park, Baden Kerr, Albert Nikoro
- © Fairfax NZ News
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