Apprenticeship over for Tongan Thor

Super Rugby
by Sam Phillips

Taniela Tupou has completed his apprenticeship.

The 20-year-old Tongan sensation is ready to take the rugby world by storm after two years learning what it takes to reach the highest level while playing for Brothers, Queensland Country, the Reds and touring with the Wallabies on last year’s Spring Tour.

Having arrived at Ballymore with enormous hype after his schoolboy highlight tape going viral, “Tongan Thor” has been a development project for coach Nick Stiles and Reds staff.

Taniela Tupou sheds three defenders during his schoolboy days at Sacred Heart College in New Zealand. Photo: Getty ImagesCouple Tupou’s tree trunks legs, bulging chest and eye-popping arms with his dazzling footwork and it’s easy to see why clubs from New Zealand, France, England and Australia all scrambled for his signature.

But it takes more than a spectacular attacking game to succeed as a tighthead prop at Super Rugby and Test level.

That is not lost on Stiles, who worked closely with Tupou as the Reds forward coach before taking on the top job.

“There is no where to hide at Super Rugby level,” Stiles said.
Taniela Tupou behind the captain's wheel at the Brisbane Tens launch. Photo: rugby.com.au/Stu Walmsley"Taniela came to us with a profile that not many other players have at his age due to the media attention and social media - that created huge expectations from the public for him.

“But he’d come from school where he basically was able to scrummage just using his size - there wasn’t any technique in it at all.

“He’s worked so hard at that and has now gone from scrummaging with his upper body to using his lower body to really drive through and he’s really developed a good technique.”

The importance of scrummaging was also not lost on Tupou when he spoke to RUGBY.com.au.

 
“All I did at school was run the ball,” he said.

“Being a professional, you have to be able to scrummage, it doesn't matter how good you run if you're no good at scrums so I have to be making sure I do that consistently.”

Tupou credits his development in the last two years to Stiles and being able to soak up invaluable tips and tricks from experienced engine room heads such as Reds captain James Slipper and Sekope Kepu in Europe last year.

“It was a bloody good experience and to go over there and work with guys like James Slipper, Sekope Kepu, doing everything with them and knowing what they do, how they play, all that sort of stuff - it was amazing,” he said.
Lopeti Timani and Taniela Tupou share a laugh at Wallabies training on last year's Spring Tour. Photo: Getty Images“It makes you want to be there - I've been there now and know how it feels and getting a taste of it just makes me want to be there again this year even more.”

Tupou arrived for preseason at 134kg after spending a few weeks visiting family and friends in his native Tonga but has since dropped to 128kg - a number he has not seen on the scales since he was 13.

“As they say, there is no place like home,” he said.

“Going back to home - here we have millions of different choices of what we can eat and all that kind of stuff - back home we are poor and we just eat whatever we can.
 
“Some days we would just have bread and butter in the morning and afternoon and you've just got to eat it.

“You just eat whatever mum puts on the table, it doesn't matter.”
Taniela Tupou shows his lighter side on the Brisbane River. Photo: rugby.com.au/Stu WalmsleyHe also returned with far less luggage.

“I will go over there with a bag full of gear and come back with absolutely nothing - an empty bag.

“Everything, gone - my cousins don't even ask it is just gone.

“But to go see my family, my mum, it's a really special time

“When I go home and see my cousins and where I grew up, where it all started, walking to my cousins house or my friends house, you just do whatever you want to do without any pressures of the world and I love it - life is easy because you know everyone in the village.
Tupou's competition for the tighthead prop spot is Sam Talakai. Photo: Getty ImagesThe race for starting tighthead prop spot is a two horse battle between Tupou and stalwart Sam Talakai, who has also returned from preseason a fitter, stronger player.

“I want to be the best and if you want to be the best you have to start so that's my goal - but at the moment I'm happy with whatever Stilesy has for me,” Tupou said.

Stiles would not be drawn on who the early favourite is for the tighthead gig but added that it was a very good problem to have.

“It’ll be horses for courses, a decision that we will have to make each week,” he said.

“But to have Taniela and Sammy Talakai in the kind of physical shape they’re in and to have them both playing good rugby - it’s a good problem for us to have.”

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