Saints farewell interview: George Pisi
There have been few greater Saints transformations than the one George Pisi enjoyed during his first season at Franklin's Gardens.
The Samoan centre went from zero to hero during the course of the 2011/12 campaign, overcoming a slippery first start against Scarlets to secure two big accolades.
Pisi, who had made his debut as a replacement in the game against Wasps a couple of weeks earlier, was pushed to full-back for the Heineken Cup clash with Scarlets at the Gardens in November, 2011.
And it was to be a humbling experience for the Samoan as a couple of errors, including dropping a high ball into the path of George North, who set up a try for Jonathan Davies, blighted his first outing at Franklin’s Gardens.
Many fans were left wondering whether the decision to bring Pisi to Northampton was a wise one.
But those fears were soon allayed as Pisi was put back in his preferred outside centre role and proceeded to go from strength to strength during a superb first season, which finished with the Apia-born player picking up the players’ and supporters’ player of the year prizes as well as being named in the Premiership’s team of the season.
“My debut wasn’t one to remember, but I made amends when I was put back into the midfield,” said Pisi, who was taking time to reflect on his stay at Saints which came to an end at the conclusion of last season.
“I happened to play well for the rest of the season and my debut turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it pushed me on.
“I was very happy to get the player of the season awards. They were massive for me.
“It continued from there and I just enjoyed playing.
“I got my love of rugby again in a new environment.
“It was my second experience away from home and I enjoyed it a lot.”
Looking specifically at that sobering experience against Scarlets, in a game Saints lost 28-23, Pisi said: “It was a bit of a hectic day.
“Fodes (Ben Foden) didn’t pass his concussion test and they put me at the back.
“I wasn’t expecting it because I only got the call when I got into the changing room.
“It was a good experience to play.
“I ended up scoring a try that day, but everyone remembers the mistakes.
“I felt a bit bad about that, but I was lucky enough to get more opportunities and I was grateful because I didn’t want to be the guy who cost the team.
“I managed to take my opportunity eventually.”
Pisi certainly did.
He became a key part of the team that reached the Premiership play-off semi-finals in 2012, forming a formidable centre partnership with James Downey.
Pisi’s Polynesian swagger perfectly complemented the steel of experienced Irish ace Downey.
And Pisi said: “James was the old head of the team and all I had to do was just run off him.
“He gave me a lot of opportunity to have the ball and I just ran off him.
“I learned a lot from him and his experience.
“Our partnership was really good.
“It was a bit sad that he left quite soon after I got there, but it was good to take his experience and give it to the new guys who came into the team.
“I hope I did alright in the midfield over the years.”
The Scarlets slip-up aside, Pisi settled well at Saints.
His ability to adapt quickly was helped by the fact that he didn’t just come straight from playing in New Zealand, as he was given a chance to play at Clermont Auverge as a medical joker.
“I was in New Zealand playing some Super Rugby and I knew I wanted to travel,” said Pisi, explaining how his Saints switch came about.
“My wife wanted to travel too - she’s a school teacher and we were looking abroad.
“We were looking at the UK because that’s where a lot of teachers go and we thought it would be good for me to play there.
“Northampton came up, I signed with them and in between time I had a medical joker at Clermont.
“It was a good experience to play there before I came to the UK.
“I was excited to come and show what I had got.”
Pisi’s only real disappointment about his first season at Saints was that it didn’t end with silverware.
Jim Mallinder’s men looked set to reach the Premiership showpiece as they flew into an eight-point lead in the play-off semi-final at Harlequins.
But the home side came roaring back in the final eight minutes, with a Joe Marler try and five points from the boot of Nick Evans securing a dramatic 25-23 victory for Quins.
The final whistle saw a scene of desolation as Saints players slumped on the turf at The Stoop.
And Pisi said: “It was pretty tough because we thought we were good enough to make the final.
“We were eight points up at Harlequins with 10 minutes to go and we thought we would be going to the Premiership final for the first time, but it didn’t happen.
“It was a disappointment, but then we made the final the next season against Leicester and we were good enough but unlucky.
“I always felt we could win the Premiership and that was the driving force behind why I stayed.”
As he alludes to, Pisi could have left at the end of the 2013 season, when Saints reached the Premiership final, losing to rivals Leicester at Twickenham.
The Samoan’s first two seasons at Saints had seen him catch the eye of a number of clubs.
But he opted to stick rather than twist, feeling success was just around the corner.
“I had a few offers elsewhere but I had unfinished business,” said Pisi.
“There was a chance to go somewhere else, but having a taste of being in the semis and finals and not winning them, I wanted to stay and really push forward and win the Premiership.
“I initially signed a two-year deal so I could have left, but I was really happy I stayed.
“I wanted to win the Premiership and we recruited players that helped us.”
Saints brought in the likes of Alex Corbisiero, Kahn Fotuali’i and North during the summer of 2013.
And those men propelled them to the next level as Mallinder’s men went on to win their first Premiership as well as the Challenge Cup in 2014.
“It was a really memorable season,” said Pisi, who scored a try in the Premiership final success against Saracens.
“We were a bit unlucky not to win the Anglo-Welsh Cup final at Exeter, but winning the Challenge Cup just gave us that taste of what it was like to win a competition.
“I know a lot of people knew Saints as being the bridesmaids - and that was a big driving force that year.
“We didn’t want to be the bridesmaids, we wanted to be the champions, and winning the Challenge Cup really made a mark on that.
“We knew we could push forward and take the top prize, which was the Premiership.”
Pisi’s double-winning experience was made all the sweeter by the fact he achieved it alongside his younger brother, Ken, who joined Saints in the summer of 2012.
And he wasn’t the only Samoan making his way to Northampton, with Fotuali’i and Ahsee Tuala also having joined.
“They got a lot of Island boys in, my little brother came and I wanted to play a lot of years with my brother,” Pisi said.
“There was Samu (Manoa) there, and Soane (Tonga’uiha) and then later on Api (Ratuniyarawa) and Nafi (Tuitavake) came.
“There wasn’t many Islanders, but now there are about four or five and it’s quite good.”
Saints’ Samoan presence helped the squad keep smiling during difficult times, with the Pisi brothers two of the most upbeat men you could ever hope to meet.
But George’s contribution came predominantly on the pitch, where he allied silk and steel to become a special centre.
He was a player who could score a hat-trick against Saracens one day, as he did in the Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-finals in 2013/14, and make an opposition player physically sick on another, as he did when smashing into Shane Geraghty during a meeting with London Irish a month later.
And Pisi’s contributions to the Saints cause will never be forgotten, even though the past two seasons haven’t gone as he and the club would have liked.
“It’s been a bit difficult and frustrating,” said the 31-year-old, who made 141 appearances for Saints.
“The year of the World Cup (2015/16) was tough because we came in late and didn’t really get pre-season with the team, which was quite tough.
“We were losing a few games but we were still there or thereabouts.
“Then, last season, it was even more disappointing and we could have won a lot of the games we lost.
“Me being injured the last six months was pretty tough.
“I didn’t want to end it like that, but that’s rugby and I pray that Northampton goes on and wins a lot more trophies.”
And Pisi firmly believes Saints will.
“There’s a good backing behind them, they’ve got some good coaches and the fans are there,” he said.
“The new signings are going to be very good for the team.
“It’s a new vision, which was what they needed.
“They’ve got a lot of new players coming in and they could be up there again.
“A lot of us had been there for years and maybe this change with new guys coming in will boost them.”
As for Pisi, he moves on to pastures new.
“I always knew this was going to be my last season,” he said.
“I spoke to my wife and we knew we needed a change.
“I enjoyed my time here, but the career is not that long so I needed a new challenge, a fresh look into rugby and I thought it was time to change.
“I felt it was time to travel a bit and play somewhere new.”
But wherever Pisi goes during the rest of his career, he won’t forget the six extremely special seasons he spent at Saints.
“It’s been amazing,” he said.
“I came here when I was just married and we started a new life here.
“We’ve had a couple of kids and I’ve enjoyed my time at the club.
“Obviously the highlight is winning the Premiership and I wouldn’t change my experience there.”
And Pisi will always be grateful for the support he has received from the Saints faithful, right from that very first taste of life in the Franklin’s Gardens spotlight.
“They were very welcoming people at Northampton, especially the fans,” he said.
“One thing I can take away from my time at the club is the loyal support and how the fans really push the team to be better.”