The Wallabies squad that Scotland will face on Saturday has been bolstered by the addition of one player who jetted into London last week. He was never going to play against England at Twickenham because he doesn’t qualify to play for Australia under the three-year residency rule until this coming Wednesday.
So Taniela “the Tongan Thor” Tupou will be eligible to play against Scotland and coach Michael Cheika might just be tempted to park the prop’s ample behind on the bench. Why else did he fly the 21-year-old player halfway around the world?
Tupou is perhaps the first professional rugby player to go viral on YouTube as a schoolboy turning out for Sacred Heart College in Auckland.
He ran amok at schools level and if the odds have evened up a little now he remains a scary proposition. Standing 5ft 10in small, just shy of 21 stones and genuinely mobile with it, Tupou is the closest thing to a human bowling ball imaginable and he can be seen in numerous videos scattering would-be defenders like skittles.
Born on Tonga and latterly schooled in Auckland, Tupou almost immediately became the subject of an ugly tug of war between Australia and New Zealand who asked him to sign some sort of letter of fidelity. Tupou declined.
For one reason or another, his brother Criff was already in Australia and one report has Tupou simply preferring the green and gold colours of the Wallabies. Tupou opted for Australia and signed professional forms for the Queensland Reds in 2014 whilst still a teenager.
In an exact mirror of the book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game about the black linebacker Michael Oher attending Ole Miss College (later turned into a film starring Sandra Bullock,) Tupou initially rooms with the Reds’ head coach at the time, Richard Graham. The outsized islander can be seen larking about with Graham’s four skinny white kids who together probably weigh less than their quietly spoken, well-mannered 18-year-old lodger. Graham jokes about having one fridge for the family and another for his guest and it must have contained more than a sliver of truth.
Wallabies legend Toutai Kefu has also had a hand in mentoring the young man and the former Australian No.8-turned coach was wowed by what he saw.
“I haven’t seen a player with that much power in a long time,” said the man who packed quite a punch in his playing days.
And whilst on the subject, Tupou revealed a dark side beneath those traditional island good manners. Following one earth-shuddering collision with Liam Messam in a pre-season ten-a-side tournament he planted a “Glasgow kiss” on the ex-All Blacks flanker and copped an immediate ban for his trouble.
Tupou is young, still only 21, and clearly a work in progress. He turned out for the Barbarians against the Wallabies at the end of October in Sydney, the invitation team leading 19-5 before being overhauled.
Tupou made his mark in Super Rugby this season but his set-piece work lags behind his open-field play in which he has retained the pace, agility and handling skills of his youth. Imagine the love child of Shane Williams and Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira and get a glimpse of the twin sides, butterfly and bulldozer, of Tupou’s game.
“I’m happy and blessed to be here,” he said when he joined the squad last week. “Maybe I’ll get to play next week or next year or whenever but I don’t feel like I should be playing [for the sake of it].
“I’m just happy to be here. I’ll work hard and I’ll get my chance to play, hopefully, whenever.
“I’m eligible next week but it doesn’t mean nothing. I’ll be giving training everything. If he [coach Cheika] thinks I’m ready now, that’s good… if he thinks I’ll be ready in two years’ time, I’ll wait two years.
“Guys like [Australia prop] Sekope [Kepu] I grew up watching as a little boy in Tonga. Now I get to train with him, learn off him and hopefully I get the chance to play with him before he retires.”
There is a distinct Pac Island feel to this Wallabies squad because in addition to Kepu and Tupou, full-back Israel Folau, veteran hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and breakaway Lopeti Timani all boast Tongan heritage, the latter born on the islands like Tupou.
The 14 frontline backs in the Wallabies’ November squad are divided equally, seven born in Australia, seven elsewhere including four Fijians, several of whom Scotland can expect to face next weekend. Of the seven backs who started against England yesterday only three were Australian-born, three were born in Fiji and scrummy Will Genia hails from Papua New Guinea.
Even Scotland managed to produce five of their own starting backs yesterday, although Huw Jones can’t be called a product of this country unless, of course, Jim Renwick was moonlighting as a maternity nurse in 1993 when he was born.
Intriguingly Tupou sports a rhino tattoo on one arm, from his days as a schoolboy in New Zealand when he was affectionately known as “the Runaway Rhino”, a name that quickly changed when he jumped the ditch and threw his lot in with the Wallabies.
“Tongan Thor” or “the Runaway Rhino”, I don’t suppose it matters very much if you are left flailing in his wake next Saturday afternoon at BT Murrayfield.