'I want the best for him': Tuipulotu's special bond with Vaa'i
That reason alone will make it a special occasion for the 28-year-old lock as he tries to force his way into the team’s starting side amid competition from established stars such as Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett.
However, this weekend’s match against Argentina holds additional significance, not only for Tuipulotu, but also for his second row partner Tupou Vaa’i.
Named to partner each other in the engine room of the All Blacks forward pack, it will be just the second time the duo have started alongside each other at test level.
That may not seem overly significant for the casual observer, but, for Vaa’i, it will mean plenty given his admiration for Tuipulotu, who he has openly acknowledged as is his childhood idol.
Tuipulotu first became aware of his status in the eyes of Vaa’i, the six-test international who debuted for the All Blacks as a 20-year-old last year, when the youngster visited the Blues while still a New Zealand age-grade representative.
“I remember when I first met him or heard about him, he came to look around at the Blues and I think then he was playing U20s,” Tuipulotu told reporters on Thursday.
“He mentioned then that I was his favourite player, so, for me, to have someone like that to say something about me, have me as their favourite player, it just takes me back to when I was looking up to someone like Jerome Kaino.
“He was my favourite player, so when I came into the environment and played with him, trained with him, I was in awe and I really enjoyed it. I’m not quite up to the status of Jerome Kaino, but I’m enjoying getting to know him and playing with him.”
While comparisons could be drawn to their playing ability on the field, Tuipulotu offers a stark contrast to Vaa’i in terms of age and experience.
Similarly to Vaa’i, Tuipulotu debuted for the All Blacks as a 21-year-old in 2014 and has since accrued seven years and 38 tests worth of experience for the New Zealand national side.
That is enough for him to be viewed as one of the senior figures in a revamped All Blacks forward pack for this week’s match at Suncorp Stadium.
All Blacks playmaker Damian McKenzie hasn’t shied away from the fact this weekend’s re-match against Los Pumas will be his biggest test yet in the No 10 jersey. #ARGvNZL #RugbyChampionship #TRC2021 #AllBlacks https://t.co/UohSuUHAmA
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 17, 2021
None of the eight big men who started in last week’s 39-0 demolition of the Los Pumas on the Gold Coast have retained their place in the run-on side, leaving Tuipulotu as one of the most experienced starting forwards alongside captain Ardie Savea and Joe Moody.
With that sense of seniority, Tuipulotu will be tasked with guiding his youthful teammates around the park against the Argentines, but the Blues skipper conceded he will keep a particular eye out for Vaa’i in his seventh test.
“Unconsciously, I’d probably agree with you,” he said when asked if he has a soft spot for Vaa’i and his progress as an international prospect.
“I think we want everyone to succeed here, but I think, with Tups, he sort of reminds me of myself growing up and coming into this team, so I want the best for him.
“If it means I have to show him a couple of things or let him know a couple of things, then that’s definitely the way to go.”
That’s not to say that Tuipulotu doesn’t have his own expectations in what will be a rare test start, just his 17th in his international career.
The presence of Retallick, Barrett and Sam Whitelock, who remains out of the squad as he has stayed in New Zealand following the recent birth of his third child, in recent years has made starting opportunities hard to come by, so Tuipulotu is out to take his chance with both hands.
“When you have guys like Brodie and Scott, who are playing world-class rugby, it’s only going to be better for us and for myself, so it’s only going to help push me to try play my best,” he said of his in-form teammates.
“When you look at those two, for me, there’s a bit of a gap, but it’s something to work towards and it gets me on the edge of my seat and it’s something to work towards.”
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