NRC: Tuipulotu ready to rise for Pacific Island Round

by Brett McKay

Melbourne Rising are still ruing an opportunity lost last weekend, but against the backdrop of the 2016 Frankston Festival of Rugby and the Melbourne International Sevens, boom centre Sione Tuipulotu says the side is now in knockout rugby mode.

“Yep, 100%. It’s knockout footy and we know there’s no room for error,” Tuipulotu told this week.

“All of us now, 1 to 23, have just got to execute the game plan, and if we happen to get through to the finals, then we might even see the same team the following week. So it’s a huge game this weekend, and I’m sure the boys will be up for it.”

With Pacific Island Round taking hold across the competition this weekend, Tuipulotu opened up and gave us a wonderful insight into the Tongan influence in his family, though he admits his family is a bit of an unusual combination.

“Yeah, I’m a bit of a fruit salad – Dad grew up in Tonga and came to Melbourne to study, and Mum’s Italian, so it’s kind of a weird mix,” he says.

That ‘weird mix’ as Tuipulotu put it means that the family house has a mixed décor, “not too much Polynesian stuff”, and a very interesting menu. “Mum cooks a lot of pastas, that’s why I tend to blow up a bit on my breaks,” he laughs.

But the Polynesian influence is very obvious around the family unit, and has been for as long as he can remember.

The Melbourne Rising sit in fourth on the Buildcorp NRC ladder with one week to go. Photo: Melbourne Rebels Media Unit“I lived in Tonga when I was a child, and we moved back to Melbourne when I was four. We definitely had that Tongan lifestyle at home, and Dad was strict on us like all Tongan fathers are.

“It definitely has its advantages though, and you’re always spending lots of time with the cousins; the aunties and uncles, and everyone’s together. That definitely played a bit part if my life growing up.”

The Rising’s home game is extra special this weekend, not just because of the big Polynesian rugby festivities going on, but rather that Tuipulotu literally grew up around Frankston Park, where the Frankston Festival of Rugby will take place this weekend, and he still plays his club rugby with the local Southern Districts club.

“Yeah, I spent my whole life around where we’re playing this weekend. It’s right near the beach, and my old primary school is just across the road.

“It definitely means a lot to be playing at home. I don’t tend to put too much pressure on myself playing at home, but it’s just that added motivation to know you’ve got your family and friends there, and you’re playing where you come from. It’s definitely a big game for me emotionally.”

That playing in front of family is not exactly new for Tuipulotu, but it will certainly be wound up this weekend, playing in his neighbourhood.

“I’ve always had massive support from my family from all over Melbourne, and especially during the Super Rugby season whenever I’ve had the opportunity to play. I’ve always had like, fifty family members sitting in the crowd, so I’m always trying to get spare tickets off the boys so I can try and get everyone in,” he laughs.

“They’ve played a massive role in my career so far, and with the game being played down in Frankston this weekend, I reckon there will be a lot of Tuipulotus running around!”

Tuipulotu chases down All Black Israel Dagg while playing for the Melbourne Rebels during the Super Rugby season. Photo: Getty ImagesLike there is in most of the Buildcorp NRC teams, there’s a big Polynesian influence in the Rising team this season, and Tuipulotu says that’s one of the really enjoyable elements of the competition. The Pacific Island Round will be an extra motivation for all the guys to play well together.

“Yeah, it definitely will. The Polynesian boys play hard every single round, and that’s what’s awesome about playing with these boys, and especially the ones that I’ve grown up with down here, like Ikapote Tupai and Siliva Siliva who’s just moved back to Melbourne to play.

“It’s just awesome to play with your ‘Melbourne boys’ that you’ve grown up with. Of course, it’s cool playing with the Rebels boys and the guys from Sydney and Queensland originally, but there’s definitely that bit of added motivation and you do have an emotional attachment to the boys from down here.

“Back in the day, we might have felt a bit disconnected from the bigger rugby world, but now we’re all playing on the bigger stage together, it definitely has a special meaning for us.”

The loss to the Rams last weekend is clearly still stinging the Rising players, but you can easily hear it in Tuipulotu’s voice that there will be no further lapses as the side now firmly fixes its gaze on finishing the season strongly and qualifying for the finals.

“In my whole career, that was one of the games that’s hurt the most,” he says of the loss last Sunday.

“We had the Horan-Little Shield as well. It was just 80 minutes that flew by us, and full credit to the Rams who came in and basically robbed the bank. They came in and ambushed us, and completely played the conditions better than us, were better in the collision areas, and were better playing the width of the field.

Sione Tuipolotu scored two tries in Round Six against the Western Sydney Rams. Photo: Melbourne Rebels Media Unit“We just have to accept that we know we weren’t at our best, but there was definitely a bitter, bitter feeling after that game because we knew we threw away our opportunity to seal our place in the Finals.

“So it’s Finals footy from now on, and if we’re going to win the comp, we know we have to win three Grand Finals from here on in. There’s no second chances any more.

“We know what we’ve got to do – we were in the same position last year when we played the Stars down in Frankston; we had our back against the wall and we got the job done and got into the semi-final against the Vikings.

“We’ve been here before and we know what we’ve got to do. We can’t let this one against the Rays slip, or else that’s the end of our season.