Grey hairs. They are a source of great angst for those refusing to embrace the signs of aging and a characteristic predominantly confined to the so-called and self-titled "silverback" generations of men above 50. Certainly, they are not something you'd expect to encounter sprouting from the head of an athletic 22-year-old All Black. Like everything thrown at him last year, Charles Piutau takes the quip in his stride. Anything less would surprise.
The grey tinge isn't always noticeable but this is Piutau in holiday mode, enjoying a deserved break after announcing his presence on the world stage. Those distinctive grey hairs first appeared during Year 11 and it soon becomes apparent the cloak fits.
"I always tell people that's my wisdom coming through," Piutau says with a broad smile and high-pitched chuckle. "It runs through the family genes." Born and raised in Mangere, South Auckland, Piutau is the youngest of 10 children. Family is an integral part of his life. Having four older brothers and five sisters ensures there's no danger of adopting an inflated ego or buying into the hype. After last year's exploits, where the talented rookie became a first-choice wing with the All Blacks and played every minute for the Blues at fullback, there was no shortage of plaudits.
For good reason, too. This raw-boned prodigy has a thirst for physical contact; strength, a sharp side-step, speed, off-loading ability and an educated left boot.
Piutau still lives in the same family home, where he suffered burns on his chest after grabbing a tea pot as a child, to care for his parents, who met in New Zealand, after moving from Tonga for a better life. All his older siblings have moved out. Now it's his time to give back.
That's not the only evidence of his grounded nature, either.
The freshly-inked tattoo which winds its way below the bicep on his left arm reflects his proud Island heritage. Many of his schoolmates chose to get the Wesley College crest much earlier. Rather than follow the trend, Piutau resisted the urge until just before last Christmas. He wanted to be sure. After 12 hours under the gun, there are no regrets. "I was meant to get the crest in fourth form but that wasn't for me."
Not so long ago Piutau was the stereotypical shy Polynesian boy. He grew up idolising Jonah Lomu's inspirational on-field feats and Michael Jones' characteristics set the "benchmark" for being a genuine person.
It's these off-field attributes that make it impossible not to sense one of New Zealand rugby's brightest next generation prospects will only get better in 2014.
There's no hint of complacency. Only a drive to continue his long-held desire.
"I went to school wanting to play sports. That was my passion. I'd go two hours early just to play touch with the guys. I couldn't wait until lunch-time to play hold and we'd get in trouble for ripping our uniforms. From a young age I always loved rugby and knew that's what I wanted to do," he recalled.
"Last year was awesome. I learnt so much. In order for me to get better I need to leave it there and park it. I enjoyed it, but it gave me a hunger inside to be better.
"It's just a starting point. Getting a taste of it . . . it's now become an addiction. I want more. Coming into this year that's my focus."
The big question of the new year is which position will he play?
Blues management have already broached the subject of featuring him at centre. Ben Smith wasn't a roaring success there for the All Blacks. And a serious need to find an alternative to Conrad Smith may open the door.
Before the Blues' last-minute U-turn on Ma'a Nonu, Sir John Kirwan planned to hand Piutau the No. 13 jersey and allow star recruit Benji Marshall to start the season at fullback. "They asked me if I was interested. I said I was open to playing centre," he said. "At the same time it depends on where the All Blacks saw me. I don't want to be playing in a position that's going to hinder my chances. I want to be practising a position to get better at it.
"In the All Blacks I really enjoyed playing on the wing. Before I didn't see it that way. Playing at that level I had fun. Coming back to the Blues I don't mind where I play.
"It doesn't worry me. If anything it's good for our team culture, to push each other and not get complacent. None of our positions are for granted. The coaches will pick on form." The danger is that juggling too many positions can cause headaches. Versatility can both help and hinder. Centre is also the most challenging defensive back-line role. "That's tough as well. Understanding different roles, it's easy to get them mixed up. It's always tough to go into a new position. There are always expectations to slot in straight away."
Whatever number he wears this season, Piutau has already proven his ability to live up to and, crucially, not be inflated by, the hype.
Don't expect that to change.
At the World Cup he may have a few more grey hairs. But at this rate Piutau will also be a key figure in the Webb Ellis Cup defence.
"It was awesome to experience it in New Zealand. Like any kid a World Cup is something you'd love to be a part of. It doesn't seem too far away. That's why this year is so important, leading into something like that. I just want to play."
- Sunday News
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