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'Not here to come second': Why Tupou's arrival at the Rebels shapes as most important moment in club's history

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7th December, 2023
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As Australian rugby bemoaned yet another dose of disappointment following Mark Nawaqanitawase’s cross-code signing, the game’s highest-profile player, Taniela Tupou, was unveiled at his new Super Rugby franchise in what shapes as a crunch period for the game down under.

Fit and injury-free, Taniela Tupou says he wants to put the past two injury-plagued seasons, including the dreaded World Cup, behind him after finally landing in Melbourne.

After signing a million-dollar, multi-year deal with the Rebels in February, the Wallabies star was shown off in the sporting capital of Australia on Thursday.

For a Super Rugby franchise desperately needing results on the field and attention off it, Tupou’s arrival comes just at the right time for both the Rebels and Australian rugby.

If the Tupou signing fails, it won’t just be a dagger for the player but for the Rebels and Wallabies too.

The key for Taniela Tupou succeeding is “happiness”, according to coach Kevin Foote. Photo: Melbourne Rebels

Cash-strapped and needing wins after a forgettable decade bearing little success, Tupou shapes as the biggest and most important signing in the franchise’s history.

But the 27-year-old says he’s not putting extra pressure on himself despite arriving at his new home with a reputation as big as his giant calves and shoulders.

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“When I arrived two weeks ago it was a bit different from arriving in Queensland 10 years ago,” Tupou said.

“My main focus is coming here to perform and staying healthy on the field and try help the Rebels be the best version of ourselves.

“I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.

“I’ve got good coaches around me. They understand me on the field and they can help me achieve that.

“I’m just doing my best in training and around the boys. I’ve got experience now and can help the younger boys.”

One of the key figures in luring Tupou down to the Rebels is general manager Nick Stiles.

Stiles was one of Tupou’s first coaches at the Queensland Reds and the former Wallabies prop helped his fellow front-rower get rid of his training wheels when he first arrived in Brisbane.

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Now Stiles, along with head coach Kevin Foote, will be tasked with trying to turn Tupou into the world-class prop he has long promised to be.

“We had a scrum session last week and it’s good to hear his [Stiles’] voice around the scrum, it brings a lot of memories from back in the day,” Tupou said.

“I’m really looking forward to working with him again. He knows his stuff.”

Taniela Tupou rumbles donwfield against Georgia. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It wasn’t long ago that stories were surfacing of Tupou hitting the scales on the other side of 150 kilograms.

But the Rebels were pleased to discover the giant prop arrived at the Stockade at a little over 140kgs last week.

Foote said ensuring Tupou was mentally in a happy space was the key to getting the best out of him.

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“Happiness. We all know if Taniela’s happy, he plays well,” he said.

“Understanding what he values, making sure he and his family are well looked after in Melbourne and that he’s got a smile on his face [are the key].”

Tupou isn’t the only big name recruit for the Rebels ahead of the 2024 season, with former Reds and Wallabies teammate Lukhan Salakaia-Loto returning to Australian rugby after a season at Northampton.

He has been joined by Wallaby Filipo Daugunu, Australian sevens star Darby Lancaster, All Blacks midfielder Matt Proctor and one-Test England halfback Jack Maunder.

Foote said their busy year in the market would help raise the profile of rugby in Melbourne, but added that winning more than anything would make the biggest difference.

“The fact that we’ve got seven Wallabies now, we’ve got five Australian A boys and five under-20s boys [will help the profile],” Foote said.

“I think what Melbourne people want to see is that we play for Melbourne and they want to see winners.

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“When we recruited Taniela he said to me, ‘I’m not coming here to come second.’”

Kevin Foote (R) and Nick Stiles (L) have a huge role to play in Taniela Tupou’s development. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

After a couple of bumpy years, Tupou said the move from Brisbane was an important one.

“It’s like the first day of school, you don’t really know what to expect,” he said.

“I’ve been really enjoying it. I’m not just saying that. I think change is good. It’s only been two weeks, but it’s been good so far and I’m really looking forward to training and trying to help my teammates.”

Reflecting on the failed World Cup campaign, Tupou said missing three of the Wallabies’ four pool fixtures “hurt”.

In the absence of Allan Alaalatoa, the tight-head prop loomed as being one of the Wallabies’ most important players if they were going to go deep in the tournament.

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But after starring against Georgia in their first-up win, Tupou suffered a hamstring injury at training and missed the next three Pool C fixtures as Eddie Jones sweated on the prop’s fitness for the quarter-finals.

Unfortunately, the Wallabies did not make it that far, with Tupou and captain Will Skelton forced to watch the mess unfold from the sidelines.

“It was tough,” Tupou said. “For me personally, I played the first game and then got injured.

“The last two years I’ve been unlucky with injuries. Obviously, for us as a team, we went through a rough period. I don’t really want to talk about it but I’m just focussing on the now.”

Tupou said ensuring he stayed on the field was the most important aspect of his game going forward.

“To be honest with you, the last few years I’ve been injured,” he said. “The fitter I am, the better I will be around the field.”

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