‘I’m not that young anymore’: The Tongan Thor’s time is now


It’s the nature of sports that, over time, you watch a player’s journey from its beginning to end and all the triumphs and defeats, the joy and heartache that come and go along the way.

As a rugby player in Australia, that means their start in club rugby, rise through the professional game, and then, if they have the talent and a little bit of luck along the way, it’s onto the Wallabies.

It’s an old saying that time flies, but one day you wake up and realise a player like Taniela Tupou is now 24 years of age and two Tests into the fourth year of his international career.

Perhaps part of it is the fact that he first burst onto our screens as a viral sensation on YouTube while trampling hapless Auckland schoolboys; Tupou will forever be linked with that vision such was the raw power and speed.

But it is now clear that he is a senior player in Dave Rennie’s new Wallabies squad, a 20-Test veteran with a World Cup campaign under his belt, so too a hugely impressive Super Rugby AU season when he was named Player of the Tournament.

Tupou may not be in the Wallabies’ eight-man leadership group as such, but at 24 years of age he is learning to express himself around the group even though it is not in his nature to do so.

“He [Rennie] told me to speak up a little bit because, for myself, I’m not one to speak up in a meeting. I can be a little bit funny, and with the media; but I’m not a fan of when things get serious and we need to talk and stuff,” Tupou told ESPN.

“But he said to me if I can talk in meetings, then maybe the other boys can do that, too. So to be a good example for the younger boys, and sometimes I forget that I am not young anymore. I was 18 once, when I first came here, and I was one of the younger boys coming into the Reds and the Wallaby team, but I just realised that I’m one of the older blokes now.”

Having been stuck behind Alan Alaalatoa as the Wallabies tighthead prop for much of the past few years, Tupou took his game to another level in Super Rugby AU and thus was rewarded with a start in the first two Bledisloe Cup Tests, which resulted in a 16-all draw and a 27-7 defeat for Australia.

While his scrummaging technique drew some ire at times from other Super Rugby AU coaches, Tupou was largely sound at the set-piece throughout the tournament. But it was in open play where he really caught the eye with a series of devastating runs, so too an engine that would allow him to play the full 80 minutes for much of the season.

“I didn’t know it was coming. It was just every week, I get told, ‘mate, 60 minutes this week’ and then we get to 60 minutes and I look to the sideline and think ‘what’s going on here?’ the score would be tight or something and next thing I’m playing 80,” Tupou told ESPN.

“I was playing 80 for so long, because Ruan Smith left us and we had a couple of young boys who had a bit to learn, and I think Thorny [coach Brad Thorn] just didn’t want to throw them in the deep end. So I ended up playing 80 for pretty much the whole year.

“It’s funny because when I got taken off in Wellington, it was 68 minutes or something, I was like ‘f—, what did I do wrong?’ I started to question myself because I’m so used to 80 but it’s normal for a prop to come off in the 60 or 70th minute. So it’s been good to know that I can play 80 as a prop, it’s a bonus and hopefully I can do that here at the Wallabies.”

It didn’t take long to see how Rennie wanted to use Tupou as a focal point of the Wallabies attack. One or two off the ruck, at top speed, Tupou was asked to be the line-bending ball-carrier Australia have lacked in recent years. And it worked too, Tupou leading a forward charge in Wellington that the All Blacks have seldom come to expect from Australia in recent times.

But it also meant the New Zealanders went away with a little more knowledge of this new Wallabies attack ahead of Bledisloe II, and allowed them to isolate a target they felt could be rattled in Auckland and the rest of the Australian team along with it.

So when Tupou spilt the ball in the face of some rushed New Zealand defence early at Eden Park, the All Blacks, led by hooker Dane Coles, made a beeline straight for him.

“I know myself that I wasn’t performing well in that second Test, so I put my hand up,” Tupou said. “Hopefully I just get another opportunity to play this week, and if I do I’ll just go back to basics. I’ll just run the ball and use my footwork, instead of trying to do something a bit different. I’ll just stick to what I know and play my game.

“Dane loves throwing chat. He’s a legend and he’s been around for a long time, and that’s what you play for, to play against some of the best. But oh man, he can throw some chat on the field. He’s up there with [Lachie] Swinton from the Waratahs. But it’s a good challenge and you’ve got to get used to that; you just have to learn how to leave it and continue playing.”

While the Wallabies trailed only 10-7 at halftime in Auckland, a blistering 14-minute three-try stretch from the All Blacks after the break blew the Australians off the paddock. A lack of defensive desire led one prominent New Zealand scribe to declare there were “no hard men in Australia”.

Tupou hasn’t lost any sleep over the comment.

“I don’t say anything to that, to be honest. They don’t know what’s going on here at camp, it’s probably not what one of their boys said, it’s one of their media guys just trying to fire us up,” Tupou said.

“But we’re more worried about winning the Cup and we’re going to focus on what we need to do to win that Cup.”

Whether he retains his place in the starting side for Saturday night’s third Test or not, Tupou has certainly entered what should prove to be the defining seasons of his international career.

Seven more years in Australian rugby would see him through two World Cups, the second quite possibly in Australia, when at 31 years of age he could also be pushing 100 Test caps.

See that journey through and any questions as to whether he will be remembered as a YouTube sensation first, Wallabies prop second, would be gone.

The ascent to truly world-class front-row status is a possibility in the years ahead, and Rennie might just be the best man to help him get there.

“It’s funny because we were just in New Zealand last week, but it just feels like yesterday when I first left New Zealand to come over to Australia,” Tupou says when looking back on his journey. “I didn’t know what was going to happen; how I was going to play; was I going to play Super Rugby. But I was just lucky to sign with the Reds.

“I was just hoping (when I came here) that one day I would play professional rugby. I was the biggest fan of the Wallabies but never thought I’d play for the Wallabies. A few years later I’m here living my dream.”

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