The former Hamilton Boys’ High Student dotted down for seven tries throughout Waikato’s campaign and played a major role in their Championship run.
Come the announcement of the 2019 Super Rugby squads, Tupaea’s name was one of the biggest omissions – but Tupaea himself wasn’t concerned.
It would have been entirely reasonable for the then-19-year-old to be frustrated with a lack of selection, given his exceptional form in the Mitre 10 Cup, but there was still plenty to look forward to.
“I didn’t read much into it, but talking to my agent and talking to my family, it was a good idea just to be patient,” Tupaea told RugbyPass.
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“The Chiefs offered me a contract for the season after (2020), so I was pretty happy with that. I had something locked up.”
It also meant the midfielder wasn’t playing for a contract during last year’s Mitre 10 Cup season.
“No one really knew about it – just me and my family – but that took a lot of pressure off me.”
2019 wasn’t quite as successful for Waikato, with the side struggling after being promoted into the Premiership division of the competition. Tupaea managed another seven tries to his name, however, and will enter his first season of Super Rugby in solid form.
Tupaea’s 14 tries over two seasons showcased his wide-ranging skills: pace, power, hunger.
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(13/13) The best test sides of the 2010's – 2015 All Blacks. The best for last. Became the first side to capture back-to-back World Cups with a generational side led by Richie McCaw. A hiccup in Sydney saw the Wallabies take The Rugby Championship, but an Eden Park massacre kept the Bledisloe Cup safe. A man-of-the-match performance from Dan Carter in the World Cup final sunk the Wallabies to prove who was the better side. Will go down as one of the all-time greatest teams. @allblacks #allblacks #nzrugby #wallabies #springboks #hurricanes #bluesrugby #crusaders #highlanders #chiefsrugby
Despite the young midfielder’s obvious potential, it won’t be an easy feat squeezing his way into the Chiefs midfield.
Last year, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Alex Nankivell and Orbyn Leger all started matches in the centres. Bailyn Sullivan and Sean Wainui, who were both employed mainly in the outside backs, are both capable in the midfield too.
That means Tupaea is fighting with six other players for game time.
Adding to the struggle is the general positional flexibility of the players he’s competing with.
“All of our midfielders can pretty much cover both positions,” said Tupaea.
In eight years of @SuperRugby with the Chiefs, Ian Foster failed to win any silverware. That on its own is a terrible metric of how Foster will perform as @AllBlacks coach, however, writes @TomVinicombe.https://t.co/ihbMZoELWX#SuperRugby @ChiefsRugby
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 12, 2019
“I’ll pretty much just slot in wherever I can. If I get the chance to play in the midfield, that’d be awesome. Midfield is my position, but I can cover wing if I have to.”
Like his fellow centres, Tupaea isn’t bothered if he starts at 12 or 13.
“I played 12 during school so it’s a familiar position for me. At Waikato we have (centurion) Dwayne Sweeney, he was pretty good at 12 so 13 just became my position.”
At just under 100kg and a little over 6 feet tall, Tupaea has plenty of bulk to his frame and could form a respectable combination with All Black Lienert-Brown, who was one of New Zealand’s and the Chiefs’ best performers throughout the 2019 season.
Tupaea has yet to partner up with Lienert-Brown in a match, with the All Black absent from the Waikato side for the past two years due to international commitments.
In the one pre-season game Tupaea played for the Chiefs in 2019, under an interim training contract, Lienert-Brown was also unavailable due to the mandatory stand-down for national representatives.
It will be a similar story for the 2020 season, with Lienert-Brown likely to accrue fewer minutes than some of his teammates.
All Blacks will be restricted to 40 minutes in their first game of the season, then 60 minutes and 80 minutes by their third match. They will also have to sit out two further fixtures.
Lienert-Brown’s absence will open the door somewhat for Tupaea – but that still leaves the many other competitors.
Manu was a dependable 12 for the Chiefs in his debut season last year while Nankivell has quietly stepped up game after game.
It wouldn’t be a major surprise if new coach Warren Gatland partnered those two up early in the season.
Gatland’s addition will have a major impact on the Chiefs’ season, with the former Wales and Waikato coach already making his presence known.
“Warren’s been awesome,” said Tupaea. “Our trainings are a lot shorter, so we’re training for about fifty minutes to an hour max.
A Super Rugby rookie has been suspended from rugby after he was found guilty of serious misconduct in a New Zealand Rugby misconduct hearing.https://t.co/6iGfVfkHkD
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 23, 2019
“Everything’s a lot more intense – running a lot, doing a lot of contact because our first pre-season game is coming up pretty soon.
“So, we’re just getting some exposure to contact and getting a good fitness level under our belt early so we can play some expansive rugby during the season.”
The Chiefs’ attack hummed along last year but the defence went through a number of hiccups. Assistant coach Tabai Matson will again take charge of the defence.
“Warren does have a bit to say about it but Tabs is running our defence. It’s sort of similar to last year: line speed is key.”
What then are Tupaea’s goals heading into his first year as a full-time rugby professional?
“I think every young New Zealander who plays rugby has the goal to be an All Black.
“But I also always wanted to play for Waikato and the Chiefs. I’ve got one of those goals ticked off – so I’m hopefully looking to debut for the Chiefs.
“I just want to learn off guys that we have here already. But hopefully, if I get the opportunity to debut, that’d be awesome.”
WATCH: Despite a change in head coach, assistant Tabai Matson is back with the Chiefs for the 2020 season.
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