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Rising star Quinn Tupaea is the missing piece for Super Rugby's most exciting backline

While the popularity and exposure of the Mitre 10 Cup may have experienced a seismic shift in recent years, the competition remains a vital proving ground for emerging players and can act as a crystal ball when it comes to identifying the next wave of talent.

In special cases, the identification of a future star doesn’t require such clairvoyance. Take one look at Waikato centre Quinn Tupaea and it’s clear that he is destined to make an impact on the field for years to come.

Tupaea has emerged from an impressive crop of rookies and helped take Waikato to the top of the Championship log in his first Mitre 10 Cup season.

The 19-year-old has nailed down a starting spot in the Mooloo midfield in his first year out of high school, proving impossible to keep from the pitch and forging a formidable partnership with club stalwart Dwayne Sweeney as the side fight for promotion.

Like most things, it seems, the former New Zealand Schools captain has found stepping up to the Mitre 10 Cup easy.

“I’ve found the transition quite easy actually,” Tupaea told RugbyPass after Waikato’s win over Southland last week.”The boys have been really welcoming. Dwayne Sweeney’s taken me under his wing – kind of the apprentice and the pro there. It’s good learning from him.”

“The apprentice and the pro”. Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images

On the field, the hard-running Tupaea often looks like a man among boys, while the opposite is closer to the truth. A late call-up for the New Zealand U20 side earlier this year, Tupaea has started all but one of Waikato’s nine matches, cementing himself in the No. 13 jersey during the side’s current six-match winning streak – the best run in the competition.

Where Tupaea separates himself on the park is with ball in hand.

“I try to back my running game and barking the boys around the park,” Tupaea said. “Still a lot of work-ons. I’ve played a couple of good games.”

Through nine games the young midfielder has been one of the hardest players for the opposition to bring down. Tupaea is carving off an impressive 13 metres with each carry, has beaten 26 defenders and has broken the line 14 times. He has also scored six tries – including doubles against Bay of Plenty and Northland – and set up two more.

Waikato assistant coach and former All Blacks wing Roger Randle rates Tupaea’s powerful running game, but was sure to establish that his young star is far from one-dimensional.

“His strength is his running,” Randle said. “He’s got a great running game, good late feet, strong ball carrier and his passing game is improving really well.”

“He’s adding a kicking game, having the confidence to add some kicking in there as well to get that triple threat.”

While rampaging runs often steal the headlines, Tupaea’s willingness to expand his game and improve – as mentioned by Randle – stands out as one of his best traits, and one that will serve him extremely well long term.

“I think it’s just willing to learn, showing up every day, working hard,” Tupaea said. “Just being new, nailing the detail, watching film. I think that helps a lot with my game. Knowing the strengths of the other teams and nailing some details.”

Randle reiterated this in his own assessment.

“He’s doing really well,” Randle said. “The good thing about Quinn, he’s got a great attitude. He’s faced a bit of adversity this year, he missed out on New Zealand U20s – the initial team – but his attitude to try and improve is just outstanding.”

“He’ll become a professional player for a number of years because his attitude’s really good”.

Perhaps Tupaea’s best performance of the season came in the side’s week eight matchup against Northland. A 71-28 rout in Whangarei, Tupaea flashed several areas of his game as he racked up 151 run metres – somewhat inflated by an impressive 95-metre intercept try – made two clean breaks and scored two tries.

His work on the other side of the ball didn’t go unnoticed, as he led Waikato’s backline in the No. 12 jersey with 10 tackles, missing just one and winning two turnovers in the victory.

The next logical step for Tupaea is Super Rugby, where he may be able to solve the Chiefs’ midfield mystery. Randle sees him making an immediate impact wherever he ends up.

“He’s growing really well,” Randle said. “He should be involved with some Super [Rugby] team next year. Whoever that is, he’s ready to go straight away.”

Tupaea is hoping to get an opportunity with his hometown Chiefs, an opportunity he will grab with both hands should it present itself.

The Chiefs have a void in the midfield following the departures of incumbents Johnny Fa’auli and Charlie Ngatai, with All Black Anton Lienert-Brown searching for a new midfield running mate.

The eventual addition of Tupaea would give the Chiefs – already one of New Zealand’s most talented sides – one of the best young backlines in the competition.

They already field current All Blacks Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Damian McKenzie and the aforementioned Lienert-Brown, all of whom are still just 23 years old and possess a wealth of knowledge and experience that a young player like Tupaea could benefit from. Throw in the likes of Brad Weber and Solomon Alaimalo and you have one of the most exciting teams to watch in the near future.

Tupaea shapes as a long-term solution in a Chiefs midfield packed with potential, but don’t be shocked if he makes an impact at the next level sooner rather than later.

As Randle said, he’ll be ready to go straight away and won’t be afraid to run straight and hard through the rest of the competition.

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Rising star Quinn Tupaea is the missing piece for Super Rugby's most exciting backline | RugbyPass