Multiple sources have confirmed to Stuff that Tuipulotu will exercise the sabbatical clause in his New Zealand Rugby contract to take up an offer said to be in the vicinity of $1.4 million to play the 2022 season in the revamped Japan competition. Toyota Verblitz is thought to be his destination.
However it is also set to see him extend his commitment to the Blues and New Zealand rugby beyond his current term through to the 2023 World Cup.
The new three-tier Japan professional league structure will kick off in January and run through the first half of the year. The Blues skipper will join a host of big-name New Zealanders heading there as the country further establishes itself as the preferred destination for Kiwi players.
It was, the sources said, simply too good an opportunity for the 38-test All Black to turn down and it will leave the Blues with a massive hole to fill in their second-row stocks for 2022 with the experienced Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (Kobelco Steelers) also having departed for a longer-term deal in Japan.
Tupulotu’s All Blacks team-mates Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have both returned from recent sabbatical stints in Japan, while his Blues and national team-mate, Beauden Barrett, also spent the 2021 season there on a similar deal.
Tuipulotu’s one-season sabbatical would allow him to return and play for the All Blacks for the remainder of 2022 after the Japan competition wraps up.
The Blues, who won the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition this year to break an 18-year title drought, were not willing to speak on Tuipulotu’s sabbatical, but Stuff understands the Auckland-based franchise have adopted a short-term pain for long-term gain approach to the mega-bucks deal.
Tuipulotu is currently contracted with NZ Rugby through until 2023, but it’s thought the Blues have negotiated a significant extension with their hard-nosed leader and premier lock that will see him remain with the franchise well beyond that term.
In the meantime the Auckland outfit have some major holes to fill in their second-row stocks for next season, with only veteran Josh Goodhue and rookie Sam Darry remaining from their specialist locks in 2021.
Coach Leon MacDonald and his forwards coach Tom Coventry will closely scour the Mitre 10 competition for potential pickups, though sources indicate the Blues are prepared to “go international” in their quest to fill the void left by Tuipulotu and Cowley-Tuioti.
With at least two quality performers required, it’s understood the Blues will extend their search to the north and possibly South Africa as they look to restock at lock. Last year they lured England backline utility Joe Marchant to New Zealand for a one-season deal, though that ended prematurely when Covid disrupted the competition.
One option they will also explore is to move well-performed blindside flanker, and fill-in captain, Tom Robinson back into the second row where he has played capably at both provincial and Super Rugby level in the past.
Tuipulotu’s absence for 2022 will also be heavily felt in the leadership ranks. It is an area that the Blues have worked hard to address after some crucial shortcomings in recent times, and it will leave Robinson and All Blacks midfielder Rieko Ioane with hefty responsibilities.
The Blues do appear well stocked through the remainder of their squad and have Barrett back and star signing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (from the Warriors) coming on board to boost their backline options.
Quite what next year’s Super Rugby competition will look like remains a work in progress as New Zealand and Australian rugby officials continue to debate its format.
The Australians have been pushing for a conference format on the back of a popularity surge for Super Rugby AU, though NZ Rugby are adamant the competition needs to return to a single league table setup.
It’s understood a full round and a half is shaping as the likely compromise format, with extended finals. Again there’s debate around “protected” spots, but NZ Rugby emphatically supports the best meeting the best in the playoffs.
Added to the difficulty is the two expansion franchises, Fijian Drua and the New Zealand-based Moana Pasifika, will have to be integrated for 2022 and they face a mad scramble to build squads after their licences only recently went unconditional.