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The 18-year-old Hurricanes debutant who hasn't even played NPC yet

By Alex McLeod
(Photo / Instagram)

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The Hurricanes struggled with many unavailable players when they beat the Highlanders in Wellington on Saturday, resulting in a fast-tracked debut for an unheralded teenager.

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A combination of Covid and injuries took its toll on the Hurricanes, who were forced to withdraw hooker Asafo Aumua and halfback Jamie Booth from their starting lineup on the day of their Super Rugby Pacific match at Sky Stadium.

With full-time squad members TJ Perenara and Cam Roigard in the injury ward, the Hurricanes had to promote Richard Judd from the bench to the starting side in Booth’s absence, while debutant Logan Henry was added to the reserves.

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It was a similar situation at hooker, where Aumua joined fellow full-time squad members Dane Coles and James O’Reilly on the unavailable list, resulting in starting Super Rugby Pacific debut for Tongan international Suila Maile.

While those aforementioned players who filled in for their unavailable counterparts had already been part of the Hurricanes squad as injury cover for the opening part of the season, the same can’t be said for Maile’s replacement on the bench.

That’s because his replacement, 18-year-old hooker Raymond Tuputupu, had been called into the Hurricanes squad from Palmerston North just a few hours prior to kick-off due to his status as effectively the last man standing in his position.

Not only does Tuputupu’s very young age make his abrupt call-up a remarkable story, but so too does his vast inexperience as a player who, until Saturday, had never played a match of first-class rugby in his life.

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Nevertheless, the teenager who is yet to even feature at NPC level, was told by Hurricanes management that he would debut for the franchise at midday on Saturday, and arrived to link up with his teammates after a few hours on the road.

Tuputupu, who is part of the Hurricanes U20 squad and trained with the senior squad as a development player during pre-season, went on to make his first appearance as a professional rugby player, subbing in for Maile with four minutes to play.

That was enough time for Tuputupu to help the Hurricanes close out a 21-14 victory over the Highlanders and complete an unlikely debut, which Hurricanes assistant coach Chris Gibbes described on Monday as a “great story”.

“He’s just a young, developing player and he’s been in the environment in the pre-season. He’s actually a kid that we’ve had our eye on for a little while,” Gibbes said.

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“At the end of the day, other guys that we had as options fell through, either testing positive for Covid, guys that we were looking at bringing from the outside in, or guys that have got injuries.

“Raymond was fit and ready to go, and so he drove down the highway and he got his Hurricanes cap, which is pretty cool.”

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However, in spite of his rapid rise from virtually out of nowhere, Gibbes said it’s unlikely Tuputupu will play for the Hurricanes again this year unless the franchise is confronted with an extreme set of circumstances and player unavailabilities.

“Because he’s a young player, young developing player, it was special circumstances,” Gibbes said of Tuputupu’s involvement over the weekend.

“He’s got a bigger picture around his development pathway that needs to be taken into consideration, and that’s basically come from New Zealand [Rugby].

“We, as a partnership in terms of developing this young kid, that’s part of it. It’s a great story, though, isn’t it? He turns [up], throws a few lineouts and gets out there on the park.

“His eyes were as big as fishbowls. He was pretty blown away, but it was a proud moment for him and his family and for the folks up at Manawatu.”

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