Flutey looks forward to 'strange' day

Converted Kiwi, who faces his birth country for the first time on Saturday, tells Chris Hewett why he has no regrets about joining the red-rose ranks
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The Independent Online

It was bound to come to this once Riki Flutey, a Maori from the North Island of New Zealand who helped the country of his birth win an Under-19 world title less than a decade ago, decided to be an Englishman instead. This weekend, in front of a full house at Twickenham, he will stand on the 10-metre line and watch his once beloved All Blacks perform their haka, and if they decide to make things personal by changing the words just for him, he will not die of surprise. Petrification maybe, but not surprise.

The Wasps centre was happy to see the funny side of it yesterday. Asked whether he might consider performing his own haka by way of response, as the exiled New Zealanders Doug Howlett and Rua Tipoki did before Munster's game with the tourists in Limerick a week ago, he replied with a laugh: "I reckon that might be just a little inappropriate." Come Saturday, he may look on these matters with a little less levity.

Flutey, who frequently led the haka during his time in New Zealand representative rugby, qualified for England through residency in September, but a couple of years previously, when he was tripping the light fantastic for London Irish in his first season in the Guinness Premiership, there was no guarantee he would declare for his adoptive nation. "I had quite a fright when I turned up for training one day and saw these articles pinned to a wall with headlines like, 'Flutey wants to be an England star'," he told this newspaper at the time. "I thought, 'Jeez, this is embarrassing. I never once said anything like that'. What I did say, in answer to a few questions, was this: 'If I was eligible and I felt I was playing well, and the England coach came up and offered me an opportunity, I wouldn't shake my head immediately and tell him no way. To be honest, I'd feel pretty strange about it. It would certainly be a shock to everyone back home'."

Now, having made his bed, the strangeness and shock are about to reach full flower. "When I hear the New Zealand anthem, a whole lot of things will be in the back of my mind," he admitted after being confirmed in the starting line-up for this most demanding of contests. "But I'll be singing the English anthem. I'm a part of this culture now and I respect it. I don't make the rules relating to who can play international rugby where, and I have no regrets about the decision I've taken."

Born in Wairarapa – he was educated as a boarder at Te Aute College, the prestigious Maori boarding school responsible for educating such past and present All Blacks as Norm Hewitt and Piri Weepu – the 28-year-old midfielder emulated his brother Mano by playing at every New Zealand age-group level.

He was considered something of a world-beater in the making, although the more severe judges questioned his ability to play 80 good minutes, as opposed to 40 brilliant ones followed by another 40 of inferior quality.

He landed himself a big-time contract with Wellington Hurricanes, but a failure to nail down a Super 12 place led him to cast an eye towards the overseas market. Brian Smith, the current England attack coach then working at London Irish, was quick on the draw.

"It's been good to link up with Brian again," said Flutey, who spent a year playing under Smith before moving to Wasps. "I have a huge amount of time for him. I came to England because I wanted more opportunities, more game time. He gave them to me.

"We bounced a lot of ideas off each other during my stay at Irish and we're still bouncing ideas now. I think we're on the same wavelength when it comes to attacking rugby." He is three caps into his international career, although last weekend's outing against the Springboks lasted a mere 32 minutes. "My hamstring tightened up in the first 10," he said. "I made the right decision to go off, because the problem turned out to be fluid on some old scar tissue – a potential eight-weeker if I'd stayed on and allowed it to really blow up."

It could not have been great, sitting there watching the South Africans rattle up the points. "No, not great," he confirmed.

Of course, if the All Blacks are allowed to move sweetly through the gears, England could easily finish a distant second for the third week running. Flutey, who played alongside the likes of Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu and Rodney So'oialo in that Under-19 vintage, can smell the danger.

"They're very dangerous in the counter-attack area – they have ballplayers throughout the side, people with great footwork and a very high skill set," he said. "But hey, they're still human."

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