Brisbane boy Tupou proud to be part of Japan's historic World Cup surge

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

He is a Brisbane State High classmate of Matt Toomua, a former Broncos, Cowboys and Force player, and his brother is a Junior Wallaby and Rebels rising star.

But those who might lay claim Will Tupou have a fight on their hands. Right now, Tupou is well and truly one of Japan’s favourite sons.

The 29-year-old is the fullback of Japan’s giant-killing rugby team, who made history on Sunday by downing Scotland and qualifying for the Rugby World Cup finals for the first time.

Will Tupou attacking against Scotland. Photo: Getty ImagesThe feats of the Brave Blossoms in their own World Cup - in which they’ve downed Six Nations powers Ireland and Scotland - has captured the baseball-mad nation and Tupou is one of 30-odd new celebrities in Japan.

They will play a sold-out quarter-final next Sunday against South Africa, and the TV ratings will be measured in the tens of millions.

"It’s unreal,” Tupou said after Japan’s victory over Scotland. 

“After doing well against Ireland, the belief in the team is just getting stronger and we are believing in the plans that we have."

A heaving Tokyo Stadium will be a long way from his family home at Dutton Park, in Brisbane, but for those who know Tupou, this is the footballing stage he was always destined to perform on.

The 2007 Brisbane State High graduate, who counts Toomua and Broncos hooker Andrew McCullogh as classmates, was tipped for big things after playing Australian schools in rugby, and then joining the Broncos under 20s.

Will Tupou attacking against Scotland. Photo: Getty ImagesHe moved to the Cowboys and played NRL for the North Queenslanders in 2010 and 2011, and scored a memorable extra-time match-winner against Newcastle in one of his 32 NRL appearances.

Tupou made a return to rugby and played for the Force in 2012-13 playing 13 games, but injury was a constant plague throughout his years in Perth.

In 2014 Tupou moved to Japan to play for the Hino Red Dolphins, and then the Coca-Cola Red Sparks, and the Sunwolves. Tupou fell in love with the country he and wife Jasmine stayed and made a new life. They have two boys.

"When I first came here I had a lot of people who supported me and told me if I stayed longer I might have a chance to play for Japan,” he said.

"I never thought I would be in Japan for this long and to have this opportunity to play in a World Cup team for Japan. I am so glad I stayed and just so grateful for the opportunity.'

In 2017, he became eligible for Japan's Brave Blossoms, and Jamie Joseph gave him a Test debut against Ireland in June of that year. He has since played 12 Tests.

Tupou on the fly for the Force. Photo: Getty ImagesLike many Test nations these days, Japan’s is a rainbow coalition of homegrown and naturalised players but those aren’t Japanese-born make the effort to fit in, not be fitted around.

Tupou said he has already started to think in Japanese.

"I do, when I am around the boys there is a lot of slang, like we would have back in Aussie,” Tupou said.

'And I say a lot of that stuff and the boys are like “mate, you’re getting there”. 

"That’s a good thing because I have been here for five years now. I enjoy the culture here, I really love the people. 

"That’s what made me stay, my family love and I believe if your family is happy, obviously my footy is good.”

Tupou’s little brother is Semisi Tupou, the three-time Junior Wallabies centre who played against France in the final this year, and is a full-timer with the Melbourne Rebels.

Their mother was in Tokyo on Sunday to see Will play at a packed out Yokohama Stadium, where the win was set to the incredible atmosphere of 72,000-plus fans.

“She hasn’t seen me play seven years now,” Tupou said.

"Last game was probably when I played at the Force. She has seen me on TV but not live. 

"It’s pretty special it’s a World Cup game as well. It’s been good.”

Tupou has been a consistent performer at fullback in a Japanese team now firing on all cylinders, and with more than a few Aussie connections.

Flying winger Kotaro Matsushima spent the year with the Waratahs in 2014, Amanaki Mafi is a former Aussie Super Rugby player of the year and Shota Horie also played at the Rebels.

And that’s not forgetting lock James Moore, who is yet another Brisbane State High graduate and former Easts and Brisbane City player in the NRC.

Moore made a staggering 24 tackles in Japan’s win over Ireland earlier in the tournament.

The Japanese team, said Tupou, always believed they had the potential to make the World Cup finals, even if others didn’t. Eddie Jones instilled the belief with their famous 2015 World Cup win over the Springboks, and funnily enough, it was when they played against his next team - England - last year, that the Jamie Joseph-led team knew they could write their own history.

"The main thing we just needed to execute. We have good coaches and good plans. We just needed to get out on the field and execute our gameplan,” Tupou said. 

"What we did in the November Test last year, what we did against England, I think the belief came from there.”

Japan led England 15-10 at halftime and were in the game until the last ten minutes, when England ran away 35-15 winners.

"We knew we did well and we did awesome, and we played a fair bit of good footy against New Zealand (in a 69-31 loss) as well.

"We knew we could play well, we just had to pull it together. And give back to the fans for their support.”

Tupou jostling with All Blacks winger George Bridge. Photo: Getty ImagesJapan’s win over South Africa is frequently mentioned, and now so too the Ireland and Scotland wins.

"We always go back to that South Africa game, when the boys beat them, because there was a lot of belief gained,” Tupou said.

"The thing about this group, it’s only us that believes in ourselves. There are a lot of people who don’t really back us, and that’s fine, but we take that game and especially the Ireland game, and we know we can do well.

"Like I say, if we prep well and execute on the night, we can really do some damage. I am really proud we are starting to believe ourself and really believe in what we can do.

"We have a lot of x-factor but we are also playing well together. That’s why we’re getting stronger.”