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Viral hit 'Tongan Thor' delivering on his huge potential

Taniela Tupou. Photo: Getty
Taniela Tupou. Photo: Getty

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

If you have an interest in rugby and were prone to browsing social media in 2014, chances are you've seen footage of Taniela Tupou before.

On Saturday, the tighthead prop came off the bench to win his second cap for Australia and made a mark by helping to win the key scrum penalty that turned the game in his team's favour.

But it is not the Tongan-born 22-year-old's set-piece abilities that made him a teenage viral sensation.

Instead, it was the outrageous broken-field running that caught the eye as he lined out for Sacred Heart College of Auckland in New Zealand schools rugby.

There are plenty of talented schoolboys in the Kiwi system, but Tupou's rare blend of size, speed and skills made him a standout in a crowded field and a hat-trick on his 18th birthday attracted thousands of viewers across the globe.

The footage of his early days remains on YouTube as the already 22-stone powerhouse shimmies past one defender, before blowing the next one away in sensational style.

Giggle

"I was 18, (weighed)142kg or 144kg and was running over little skinny, white boys," he recalled with a giggle on a recent appearance on Australian television.

Already, he had garnered his nickname and online admiration wasn't the only interest the 'Tongan Thor' was attracting.

New Zealand tried to get him to commit to their system with Super Rugby sides offering senior contracts, while the big-spending French and English clubs came in with lucrative offers to take him across the world.

However, Tupou's older brother Criff lived in Queensland and the green and gold of Australia was always the biggest draw.

"Growing up in Tonga I always watched the Wallabies, but I never thought I'd be able to play for them," he recalled. "I went to New Zealand, but in the back of my mind I always wanted to go to Australia."

Michael Cheika had been trying to get him to Sydney before the world knew his name, but in the end he signed for Queensland Reds.

They integrated him slowly, initially moving him in with one coach Richard Graham and his family to ease his transition and they introduced him to the senior grade slowly to help him acclimatise to top-level rugby.

It appears to have worked. Steadily, the scrummaging has come on and that has allowed him to start cutting loose at Super Rugby level.

He toured Europe in 2016 as an apprentice and won his first cap last November,

Now, Cheika has him firmly in his plans for the next World Cup and his impact against Ireland last weekend suggests he will have a big role in this series.

"He has got a lot of energy," experienced prop Sekope Kepu said of the young gun.

"He is involved a lot in the laughing, the stuff that goes on off the field, but he is pretty focused.

"He has had a great season with the Reds, with Brad Thorn. He keeps him on his toes.

"Words coming from someone of that stature, he's someone who can take a lot of confidence from that advice, so he has done really well.

"Whenever he performs roles, he is always double-checking that he is always all over the roles, and stuff like that.

"He has really, really matured, I must say. He is seeking the calls, so that is great to see, the way he has adapted to the environment.

"The Reds have been really, really good for him. I go back to what I said about Brad Thorn, he has influenced him, helped him become consistent."

There are no small men in international rugby anymore, but even the hardened professionals in the Australian dressing-room are bowled over by the youngster's physical attributes.

"He can definitely carry," Kepu said.

"Sometimes we watch him run around, just in his jocks on the bus or in our room and just the sheer size of him, the boys just laugh and say, 'what is going on?'

"He is like a rhino walking off.

"But when it is crunch time, he is a really good kid, really studies hard, and he has matured and grown up."

Australia landed a gem and they've been slowly but surely polishing him up.

Ireland's misfortune is that he looks ready to be unleashed on the rest of the world and they are first in the firing line.

Irish Independent

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