I didn’t watch any of the old Tongan Thor videos.
I try to avoid hype of all types, but particularly any that centres around adolescents and children.
Kane Williamson, for example, is a very, very fine cricketer, whose batting deeds and humility are admired the cricket-world over. Williamson’s greatest achievement, though, was simply making it to the test arena.
How many ‘next big things’ have you known in your lifetime? I’ve definitely come across a few.
Williamson was one of those. And not just as a college player, either. No, from the time Williamson was at primary school people made bold predictions about his future.
For all that he’s gone on to do with a bat in hand, Williamson has also done exceptionally well not to succumb to the pressure of those childhood expectations.
If he was fortunate in one sense, it’s that timing meant he never became an internet sensation.
Not like Taniela Tupou, the so-called Tongan Thor. Poor Tupou was done a terrible disservice by all those clickbait merchants and set up to fail. I vividly remember a Hurricanes media session, when Tupou was just starting his Super Rugby career at the Reds.
A TV-type quizzed Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd about the Tongan Thor and what special plans or tactics Boyd’s team would employ to minimise his impact. Boyd feigned total ignorance of this Tongan Thor and no matter how hard the interviewer tried, Boyd wasn’t budging.
He’d never heard of any Tongan Thor, hadn’t devised any schemes and wasn’t in the mood to carry the conversation further.
Had Boyd been asked about Taniela Tupou, and not the Tongan Thor, he’d have dignified the question with an answer. The same as always he did when asked about Loni Uhila, as opposed to the Tongan Bear.
For all the people who watched the Tongan Thor videos, there were just as many who didn’t. Worse than that, there were those who began to resent the publicity around Tupou and set about finding ways to fault him.
Coaches and players didn’t like to talk about Tupou on the record but, off it, we journalists were all told he couldn’t scrummage and was totally overrated. He might run over and around school kids, but he would never be a match for real men.
Taniela Tupou is now 24 and gradually leaving that stupid, dehumanising nickname behind him. For that alone, he deserves a huge amount of credit.
But his all round rugby game is now worthy of great respect too and he looms as one of the more influential figures of the upcoming international season. Tupou certainly excelled in Australia’s Super Rugby competition and it’s funny how a few months’ absence makes the heart grow fonder.
With the Wallabies now safely ensconced in Christchurch, we can look forward to the resumption in hostilities between themselves and the All Blacks. It’s a new era for both sides and that’s always appealing.
You need games to have an unpredictability about them and, thanks to the separate Super Rugby tournaments and the arrival of new coaching staffs, we really don’t have much idea how New Zealand or Australia will perform when they meet at Sky Stadium on October 11.
Among the many match-ups that might prove pivotal, the one between Tupou and Joe Moody looms large, if only for the penalties. Neither Moody nor Tupou is a stranger to scrum infringements and referee Paul Williams will have his hands full in Wellington.
The heartening thing, though, is we’re starting to talk about Tupou as a rugby player – rather than a comic book hero – and beginning to imagine the kind of dominance he might achieve at test level. He still has the ball skills and speed off the mark that some backs would be proud of, but that’s now allied to an increasing aptitude for the basics.
We might have first come to know Taniela Tupou by another name, but by the end of his test career you suspect those schoolboy deeds will be just a distant memory.
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