From teen sensation to elder statesman: Taniela Tupou stepping up to become a leader at Reds

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

He burst on to the scene a YouTube sensation tagged Tongan Thor - an overgrown schoolboy bowling over opponents with sheer size and strength.

Taniela Tupou soon made his mark in Super Rugby and with the Wallabies too.

But at just 23, Tupou has had to accept he's an elder statesman at the Reds and needs to step up as a leader if the young Queensland team is to realise its potential as a finals contender.

Tupou will head into his fifth Super Rugby season later this month when the Reds take on the Brumbies in Canberra.

Recently returned from a World Cup campaign and with 19 Test caps now to his name, Tupou understands he has to be a leader in a team packed with emerging players.

Queensland lost Ruan Smith over the off-season, leaving Tupou as the most experienced tighthead in a team that includes emerging front-rowers including Harry Hoopert (21) and Josh Nasser (20). 

"I'm one of the older guys now and I need to step up and be a leader - which is hard for me because I'm not that type of person," Tupou said.

"But I guess I have to make a start and do something for the other guys."

Tupou signed with the Reds as an 18-year-old straight out of boarding school in New Zealand.

After moving in with then-Queensland coach Richard Graham and his family, Tupou was taken under the wing of Reds and Wallabies forwards who helped guide the growth of the raw front-rower.

 

Players like Sekope Kepu and Allan Alaalatoa have taken Tupou under their wing and he understands the importance of mentors.

"I'm so used to being the young guy, so used to just learning and never giving advice, just take, take, take," he said.

"But coming into this year, we've got some older guys in the team but they look at me as one of the older guys - and I feel like I've got to say something, I've got to do something, I've got to help them and show them my experience here.

"I'm not the best at talking but I need to get comfortable. I'm so uncomfortable talking but I've got to stop that and share my experience - I've got to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

"I feel like I need to help (the young guys) as much as I can and just get them ready for the squad.

"This is not a kids' game, this is an old man's game and you need to be ready for that, so I feel like I need to help them out in any way I can just so they can be ready."

 

Tupou returned to Reds training following his post-World Cup break refreshed after more than two months at home in Tonga.

"When I go to Tonga, I'm back to who I am. Back to normal, I guess - how I grew up and doing stuff that reminded me of myself again," he said.

"Just to have my family around me and the people who mean the most to me, it's just good.

"You go home empty and come back full of love, full of everything, values. Family is everything to me, so when I go home, I just spend time with them.

"I left home when I was 14 (to go to school in New Zealand), left for four or five years and I kind of missed out.

"I missed out but for a good reason, to get a better future but it's when I go home that I feel that love and being around them is good."

 

Being around his mum's home cooking for an extended period can be a danger for Tupou but he added only 2kg over the off-season and is determined to return to his best for the Reds after struggling last year.

"I think my worst year was last year," Tupou said.

"Obviously some off-field stuff happened to me last year and it was because going from winning the player of the year in 2018, there was a lot of expectation and it was just tough, there was a lot of off-field stuff going on for me.

"I was terrible, playing bad coming off the bench some of the games.

"(But now), I feel like my head's in the right space and I just need to get myself fit and I should be able to get back on track."