Four to the Thor: How Taniela Tupou went from viral sensation to long-term Wallaby

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten

The first time most Australians laid eyes on Taniela Tupou, it was in a viral video of a teenager trampling rivals in Auckland schools rugby, running in 50-metre tries.

Impossibly big and fast, the 'Tongan Thor' was global.

“I remember first seeing him, the YouTube sensation, an awesome highlights reel of him running over kids, running amok,” Wallabies lock Rory Arnold said.

“Then I’ve seen him come in as a shy young fella and it’s pretty cool to see him develop over the last four, five years under guys like Allan and Keps. 

Taniela Tupou made an impact off the bench in Melbourne. Photo: Walmsley“He’s got a massive future ahead of him. To have him around for another four years is a good thing for Australian rugby.”

What Arnold and other Australians didn’t realise back in 2014, as Thor fever hit its peak, was that young Taniela had grown up in Tonga as a Wallabies fan.

When he attended Sacred Heart College in Auckland, the temptation to switch to black was no doubt strong but Tupou held firm and brushing New Zealand rugby interest, Tupou agreed joined the Queensland Reds in 2015.

Two years later, became one of those Wallabies players himself.

This week, the now 23-year-old Tupou again turned his back on other offers - rich ones - to re-commit to Australia with a four-year contract extension.

The bullocking prop, who was last week described as the “strongest person I have seen” by Sekope Kepu, will be with the Reds, and almost certainly the Wallabies, until after the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Tupou's is an unlikely path that still surprises even him sometimes. The viral video “Thor” from his schoolboy days is all-but gone but the kid who grew up in Tonga idolising Wallaby players remains.

"Growing up when I was young in Tonga I used to wake up and watch us against the All Blacks and us against South Africa,” Tupou said on Monday.

'I used to watch James O’Connor and stuff, and I was a big fan of Quade, Willy Genia and Radike Samo.

"That was before I went to New Zealand. I went to (school in) New Zealand and everything changed but I was still supporting Australia.

"It was funny because I caught up my one of mates yesterday in Perth and he reminded back in school I was the only one supporting the Wallabies and the rest were supporting the All Blacks so it’s crazy now that I am here playing for Australia. I have come a long way.”

The fact the Thor nickname is used far less frequently these days is also an indication of how far Tupou has come.

Some may have thought they’d be seeing Tupou trampling people in 50-metre tries for the Reds but coaches, teammates - and Tupou - knew the making of his professional career would be in a far less conspicuous part of the field.

"At school I was known obviously as the big boy running around in school, and obviously I have been working hard with coaches and other players helping me out at scrum time and stuff,” Tupou said.

"Because at school it was just people knowing me for running and stuff. But obviously at this level I have to know my stuff in the scrum and at the set-piece and stuff. 

"I have come a long way and I feel like there is still stuff to improve there. I am happy I have four more years to work on that.

There were some lucrative offers from the northern hemisphere, where tight-head props sit alongside goal-kicking tens as the game’s highest earners.

But Tupou said he didn’t really consider any of them seriously, wanting to stay and keep building success he sees coming down the track with Queensland and the Wallabies.

🔨 4 more for Thor.

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"I wasn’t going to go anywhere anyway,” Tupou said.

Financially he didn’t necessarily have to, either.

In a sign of Australian rugby’s shifting priorities, Tupou’s deal - worth around $2.5 million over four years - will see him become the second tighthead prop on the list of top-ten earners in Australian rugby, and on a long-term deal, too. 

Wallabies no.3 Allan Alaalatoa recently signed a four-year extension as well.

With 109-Test veteran Sekope Kepu left out of the Wallabies team in Perth, it is good depth for Australian rugby in a problematic position of the past. And Tupou says the competition with Alaalatoa over the next four years will only make him a better player.

“Me, Allan and Sekope are good mates, we’re working hard for each other and trying to bring the best out in each other,” Tupou said.

“I’m just looking forward to working with Allan. He’s a few years older than me, he’ll be the next Sekope for me, I’ll learn off him and hopefully he can learn something from me.”

Tupou has now got 15 Test caps and the exciting part for those who understand the dark arts of the front row is that his best years still to come, in the late-20s.

Kepu said last week that Tupou was ahead of where he was as a 23-year-old. 

“I think he just made that up, he couldn’t think of anything better to say,” Tupou said.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be a roomie with Keps, he’s played more than 100 games for this team and he was one of the guys I grew up watching as a kid.

“I didn’t really know what he was saying about me but I’m enjoying working with him, I want to learn as much as I can from him, because this year will be his last year and I’mlooking forard to learning as much as I can. He won’t be here next year.”

Though he’s moving overseas next year, Arnold said he was pleased to see Tupou locked down in Australian rugby long-term.

"It’s a good thing for Nela being so young. It would have been disappointing to lose a player like that overseas, so I’m happy that he’s hung around and I can’t wait to see what he has to offer over the next four years,” Arnold said.

This week Tupou will return to Auckland for the first time as a Test footballer. His usual equation will be slightly magnified. 

Instead of being a Wallaby fan in a school full of Kiwi supporters, he’ll be a Wallaby in a nation of All Black fans.