Starter for 10: has the Premiership ever seen a more naturally-gifted player than Charles Piutau? Others have scored more tries, made more tackles or influenced their team’s fortunes more significantly, but has there ever been anyone to match Piutau’s capacity to thrill, to produce those moments that stir the senses?
On Saturday he makes his last appearance for Bristol against Gloucester after five years at the club. He arrived to great fanfare, the first £1m player and as the totem of the Premiership’s marquee player policy, but the ledger will show only a qualified success. He was injured at the start of his first season and took a while to have the kind of impact when briefly at Wasps before arriving in the West Country via a stint with Ulster. The ledger does not account for aesthetics, however, and there has been no greater sight than Piutau leading a counterattack from deep.
He leaves with Bristol at the wrong end of the table, with a yard less pace – injuries have taken their toll – but with a treasure trove of magic moments. Speak to Bristol fans and they will point to his sidestep on Ben Earl against Saracens, his assist for Harry Randall against Northampton in March and countless others that have taken the breath away. A performance in an exhilarating draw at London Irish sticks in the memory and surely there is no player to have twisted more blood in Premiership history.
“It’s one of the parts of the games that I like and enjoy,” he says. “It’s an area of the game I try to bring into the team, front-foot ball off counterattack and best case scenario is a line-break, if not momentum.” Simple, when put like that. “There are certain aspects of the game and the way that Bristol throw the ball around with an attacking style. That was why I wanted to come to the club.”
Piutau leaves the Premiership a poorer place but it is a sign of the times that he departs. When his exit was confirmed, along with that of Semi Radradra, Bristol’s director of rugby, Pat Lam, was clear it was not just the Bears’ loss: “The day when we announced that Charles was signing and that Semi was signing, I made it very clear that this wasn’t just for the Bears, it was for the Premiership. It’s a privilege for us that he [Piutau] is playing for the Bears, but it’s a huge privilege that we have these two rockstars of world rugby playing in the Premiership. Unfortunately, with the salary cap being reduced they will move on, but it has been a privilege to have them because it elevates our team, but it also elevates the Premiership.”
On those grounds, maybe it is a more pertinent question to ask if the signing of Piutau paid off. There is a school of thought that says the marquee player rule has been counterproductive. Certainly Lord Myners thought so in his review into the salary cap and whereas the idea was to sprinkle stardust on the Premiership, it has come to be a means by which clubs can hang on to established England internationals. Indeed, with Piutau and Radradra leaving, there is little stardust left and though Finn Russell arrives at Bath next season, and after a slow start Handré Pollard is showing his class at Leicester, by and large the rockstars have exited stage left with marquee exemptions prioritised elsewhere.
“My time at Bristol, the Premiership has always felt like it’s been the same,” says Piutau. “A traditional grind, a long season – every week you can never rest or think it’s an easy game. Going forward I think there will be less foreign players coming in and at the same time it’s probably an opportunity for players coming through English academies to make a name for themselves.”
Think back to when Piutau was at Wasps, then replaced by Kurtley Beale, and it is no exaggeration to say they were appointment viewing. The counter argument is that star quality does not automatically boost attendances or audiences – though Bristol certainly felt the benefit – and Wasps’ plight is a warning for clubs who shoot for the moon. But there can be no denying the Premiership suffers from a lack of overseas quality. England suffers too, for the gulf in class between club matches and internationals is bigger than it has been for years, as ruthlessly exposed by France at Twickenham where players who prosper in the Premiership were pulverised. As Piutau’s Bristol teammate Ellis Genge said during the Six Nations: “The difference between Premiership and internationals is huge now. It’s not as close as what it was when there was a significantly bigger [salary] cap space for better players to be in the Premiership.”
Clearly, the financial landscape is playing its part – so, too, the reduced salary cap, as Lam and Genge both noted. Lam speaks from the fortunate position that the Bears are bankrolled by a billionaire, however, and maybe the wider issue here is in what direction the Premiership really wants to head. Because at things stand, there is diminishing appetite for overseas stars such as Piutau as well as England internationals because it is not financially viable for clubs to hold on to Test players who are absent for pretty much half the season.
The saving grace is that the A-list England players, those who are pretty much guaranteed their international match fees of around £25,000 per game, cannot earn significant amounts more abroad, certainly not enough to cover the shortfall in Test appearances given they would be ineligible, and so are for now staying put. But all it takes is one to grasp the nettle, add further pressure on the Rugby Football Union to change its selection criteria and the dam may burst, which is why Jack Willis’s stint at Toulouse is such a significant test case.
If Premiership clubs do not see the value in overseas stars or England internationals, however, it is both a sorry state of affairs and raises the question of precisely what sort of player is most attractive in the current landscape where the survival of the many is at loggerheads with the ambition of the few? Time will tell then if star signings from overseas become the fashion again – while it is true to say the salary cap will go back up, it will do so against the wishes of a number of clubs. For now though, after Saturday, the era of signing overseas rockstars is over. Enjoy the encore.