A version of this profile was first published in the Blues v Hurricanes match programme.
Male Sa’u has played out the typical professional rugby narrative in reverse. He left New Zealand early to pursue rugby in Japan, before returning to his roots with Super Rugby.
The Otara-boy developed his craft at Tangaroa College, a school “in the backstreets of South Auckland.” They weren’t known as a rugby powerhouse, more recognised for volleyball and touch football. But with some guidance from Auckland stalwart and coach Waisake Sotatu, Male and his teammates finished 4th in the prestigious Auckland 1A competiton.
Male played centre and on the wing, earning spots in the New Zealand Under-19 and Under-20 teams and spending a few years in the Auckland Rugby Academy after high school. It wasn’t long before his talent was recognised by Japanese club Yamaha Jubilo and he was offered a contract. The 19-year-old and his then partner, now wife, Jazmynn took up the adventure and travelled across the world to begin a nine-year immersion into Japanese life.
It was here that the couple’s two daughters, Amiya and Ayyah, were born. It’s also where Male developed his love for cooking and food. His favourite meals to cook became, ironically, the Italian favourite fresh pasta and pizza. But Male also became accustomed to the Japanese delicacy Natto. The soy-bean mixture is packed full of protein and is typically eaten with soy sauce on rice. It just takes a little getting used to – Male described it as “like beans that smell off and rotten.”
By living and playing in Japan for more than three years, Male was eligible to play for the national team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Which means he helped write the Cinderella story of the competition: when the Brave Blossoms beat the Springboks in pool play.
“A few weeks out from that game, we didn’t really believe we could do anything at the World Cup because South Africa was in our pool,” Sa’u recalled. “Eddie Jones saw the opportunity and kept drilling in to us that we could be the best Japanese team ever.”
Those words must have stuck, because the team pulled off the biggest upset at the tournament, beating the South Africans 34-32.
“It was unreal, Japanese media was blowing up back home, the boys couldn’t sleep,” he said. “It was probably one of the best experiences of my rugby career.”
After the World Cup, Male and his family decided to return home and begin a life in New Zealand.
“Growing up as a South Auckland kid, I always wanted to play for the Blues and the All Blacks or Manu Samoa. It’s about performing in front of my family and friends and helping the young kids here in Auckland achieve their goals,” he said.
“I can’t make the All Blacks, so the goal is really just to come back and help the team develop into a champion team.”