Brendon Tuuta was a tough, wholehearted and skilful backrower during a decade-long professional career in Australia and England. He is destined to be remembered chiefly – across the Tasman, at least – for a wild debut performance against Australia in 1989, but Tuuta went on to rack up 16 Test appearances for the Kiwis.
Born in the Chatham Islands, Tuuta was originally a half and scored a try in Hornby’s 1985 Grand Final loss to Halswell before helping the Panthers turn the tables on the Hornets in the following season’s decider. He also debuted for Canterbury in 1986 and displaced West Coast’s Kiwi halfback Glen Gibb in the South Island team.
Following a stint fishing in the Chathams, the prodigiously talented youngster joined Halswell, moved to lock and featured in its 1987 Grand Final win over his former club. He was a mainstay for Canterbury and South Island again despite shifting into the pack at club level.
Tuuta won a third straight Grand Final in 1988 – alongside cousin Russell Tuuta – when Halswell defeated Marist-Western Suburbs, despite enduring an injury-interrupted campaign.
He was snapped up by Western Suburbs Magpies and his strong early-season performances in the 1989 NSWRL premiership earned him a Kiwis call-up for the series opener against Australia in Christchurch, with captain Hugh McGahan moved to the second-row to accommodate Tuuta at lock.
Tuuta became the focus of the Australian media after an overexuberant display on debut, dubbing him the ‘baby-faced assassin’ after he kneed Paul Vautin in a flashpoint incident and caught several opponents with high tackles in the Kiwis’ 26-6 loss. Avoiding suspension, featured in the remaining two Tests in the series (albeit as an interchange in the third match) without incident.
The lightweight lock toured Britain and France with the Kiwis at the end of the year but was left out of the Tests, with McGahan, Sam Stewart, Kurt Sorensen and Mike Kuiti preferred in the back-row.
A regular in the Magpies’ pack (and an occasional five-eighth) in 1990, Tuuta was overlooked by the New Zealand selectors for a busy Test program and he went to England at the end of the year to begin an eight-season stint in the Old Dart, initially joining Featherstone Rovers.
During an off-season return to Christchurch in 1992, Tuuta represented Canterbury and kicked off an international renaissance. He was recalled to the bench for the one-off Test against Papua New Guinea and – following Tawera Nikau’s withdrawal – played lock in both Tests of an absorbing series against Great Britain.
Tuuta was home long enough in 1993 to claim man-of-the-match honours in Canterbury’s famous 36-12 thrashing of Auckland in the First Division Grand Final at Addington Show Grounds playing opposite Nikau, whose presence consigned him to the bench for the first two Tests in the subsequent series against Australia. But Tuuta was elevated to the second-row for the third Test decider in Brisbane.
The 28-year-old’s contract with Featherstone meant he was not included in the Kiwis’ touring party to Britain and France at the end of 1993, while he was not called up for the Tests. But Tuuta returned for the Kiwis’ trip to Papua New Guinea in late-1994, playing both Tests in the second-row and scoring a try in the second clash in Goroka.
Tuuta liked with the fledgling, Perth-based Western Reds in 1995 after his English club commitments wrapped up and he played all five mid-season Tests against France and Australia at lock, following the withdrawal of Nikau due to his personal differences with Kiwis teammate Richie Blackmore.
He was chosen in New Zealand’s Centenary World Cup squad at the end of 1995 but did not play in any of the semi-finalists’ three matches at the tournament, which signalled the end of his international career.
Tuuta had subsequent stints with Castleford and Warrington in the Super League before hanging up the boots on a colourful career.
NEW ZEALAND (1989, 1992-95)
16 Tests – 1 try (4 points)
6 tour matches – 1 try (4 points)
-1989 Kiwis tour of Britain and France
-1995 Kiwis World Cup squad