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Dublin: 8°C Sunday 16 May 2021

Once a viral hit, Tongan Thor now making an explosive impact for Wallabies

Brad Thorn has been a big influence on the Queensland Reds tighthead prop.

Murray Kinsella reports from Melbourne

YOU MAY REMEMBER the first viral video of the Tongan Thor back in 2014, when he bulldozed his way to fame in New Zealand schoolboy rugby.

There have been a fair few clips of Taniela Tupou in action in the years since and even in this season’s Super Rugby for the Reds, it has sometimes looked like the tighthead prop is still playing against kids.

Tongan Thor

Having made an impressive impact off the bench for the Wallabies against Ireland last weekend, winning just his second cap, it looks like 22-year-old Tupou has a very bright future at the top level of the game.

A native of Vaini in Tonga, Tupou was weighing in at around 140kg in 2014 when his explosive hat-trick for Sacred Heart College in a win over Kelston Boys’ High School proved to be an online sensation.

Originally tagged the ‘Runaway Rhino’ before his current nickname caught on, Tupou was already well on the radar of Southern Hemisphere scouts at that stage and he ended up being lured into Australian rugby after finishing school.

The Queensland Reds captured one of the most exciting young talents in the game, with his progression through club rugby with Brothers and the National Rugby Championship with Queensland Country leading to a Super Rugby debut in 2016.

Three years after arriving in Australia, Tupou qualified for the Wallabies under World Rugby’s residency regulation and his debut came off the bench against Scotland during last November’s European tour.

Having improved notably under new Reds coach Brad Thorn this season in Super Rugby, Tupou was always likely to feature in this month’s series against Ireland and he was excellent in a 25-minute stint off the bench last weekend in Brisbane.

It’s a long way from his days running over “little skinny white boys” in New Zealand, but the slimmed-down 135kg version of Tupou, who the Wallabies call ‘Nela,’ still packs a punch even at senior Test level.

RUGBY WALLABIES TRAINING Tupou is hoping for cap number three this weekend. Source: AAP/PA Images

He helped the Wallabies to a crucial scrum penalty in the 68th minute against Ireland, while his seven tackles were impactful and he had four big carries, including a crucial effort during the build-up to David Pocock’s try.

Starting Aussie tighthead Sekope Kepu, whose parents are Tongan, has been a key influence on Tupou since his arrival into the Wallabies camp.

“He’s got a lot of energy, he’s got a lot of high-pitched laughing, the stuff that goes on off the field, as you do!” explains Kepu.

“But he’s pretty focused. He has had a great season with Brad Thorn at the Reds keeping him honest, keeping him on his toes. Words coming from someone of that stature, he’s going to get a lot of confidence out of that, he’s going to trust a lot of that advice.

“He’s done really well. Whatever roles he might have, we’re always chatting and I’m always double-checking that he is all over the roles because the last thing I want is for him to miss a role; I’ll feel it’s my bad he’s not all over it.

“He has really, really matured. He is seeking the calls, got the notepad and everything out. It’s great to see the way he has adapted to the environment.”

The sheer weight of expectation on Tupou has surely testing at times, but he has come through it impressively and emerged as a real character in the Wallabies squad.

RUGBY WALLABIES TRAINING Tupou [right] with Wallabies hooker and Reds team-mate Brandon Paenga-Amosa. Source: AAP/PA Images

“The Reds have been really, really good for him,” says Kepu. “With Brad Thorn, he is just getting that consistent voice every week to focus on the little things and don’t worry about the running, that will come. He can definitely carry!

“Sometimes we sit there and watch him walking around, just in his jocks and a basketball singlet in some of the rooms and just the sheer size of him, the boys just laugh at each other and go, ‘What is going on? This looks like a rhino walking off.’

“But when it’s crunch time, and Cheik [Michael Cheika] loves it about him, he can flick the switch and I’d hate to be on the opposition when he’s playing against you.

“He’s a good kid and he’s really starting to mature and grow up.”

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Murray Kinsella

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