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FEATURE Can the Tongan Thor inspire Australia's toiling Super Rugby franchises?

Can the Tongan Thor inspire Australia's toiling Super Rugby franchises?
5 months ago

After the Eddie Jones and Hamish McLennan-engineered fiasco at the World Cup, Australian rugby is in urgent need of some redress. It must restore some self-respect, and banish the backwash of global ridicule left by the trail of that tournament.

Nobody will be laughing harder and longer than New Zealand but those guffaws will die down quickly. There will be rather more than a touch of genuine concern in the Land of the Long White Cloud that their closest rivals are no longer providing the stern, meaningful tests that they presented 15 or 20 years ago. New Zealand does not want an ailing, introspective Australia; it needs the devil-may-care, robust reputation-killer

Australian rugby can start the long journey back from its own private underworld by demanding respect from its traditional foes across the Tasman in Super Rugby Pacific. Consistent performances on the field, from all five franchises, will go a long way to reestablishing pride in the game and make the job of the new Wallabies coach – whoever they may be – a whole lot easier.

The Rebels and Force have long struggled to assert themselves in the various iterations of Super Rugby (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The two Australian ‘expansion’ franchises, the Melbourne Rebels and the Western Force, will be key to the remedial operation. They may be providing important pathways for aspiring professional players at home, but at some stage both clubs need to start winning more than they have been losing to gain credibility. That is what sporting teams are ultimately designed to do – win games on the battlefield of their choice.

If either or both can enjoy a play-off-worthy season in 2024, they will be reversing the tide of history. Since their inception in 2011, the Rebels have never enjoyed a Super Rugby season featuring overseas opposition with more wins than losses. The Force’s journey started five years earlier, back in 2006. All they have to show for 17 years of development is two winning seasons in 2008 and 2014. Neither was enough to earn them a play-off berth.

It has been a rocky road for both franchises. In 2017, the Force were one of three clubs cut loose when Super Rugby contracted from 18 to 15 teams. As the axe fell, Rugby Australia muttered darkly about “commercial realities which are linked to declining on-field performance across our Super Rugby teams, which has put Australian rugby in a position where it can no longer sustain five teams”.

Backed by the financial support of prominent WA entrepreneur Andrew Forrest, the Western outfit fought tooth and nail to survive, and survive they did. Within three short years, the Force were back as one of five Australian sides competing in a Covid-afflicted Super Rugby AU 2020.

Taniela Tupou
In acquiring Taniela Tupou, the Rebels have made a heavyweight signing in every sense (Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

The Rebels also have a chequered history, and even the latest chapter in the story suggests they remain under extreme pressure, wavering on the cliff edge of financial sustainability. In the week before Christmas, the unwelcome news broke the franchise was $9m AUD in debt, with one of its primary backers, BRC Capital, facing its own solvency issues. Rugby Australia has had to take out an $80m AUD bridging loan of its own until the British and Irish Lions visit in 2025, so no help will be coming from that direction.

RA chief executive Phil Waugh pulled off a fine political balancing act in his comments, apparently backing the five-team format while somehow simultaneously keeping all his options open: “We’ve got five teams, and we’re committed to five teams.

“It’s about how creative we get in filling those teams to ensure we’ve got five competitive teams.

“Everything is on the table in terms of the growth of the Wallabies performances, and what will feed through to us being number one or two in the world.”

The plain truth is the Rebels and Force must start winning if Super Rugby Pacific is to gain credibility and attract new sponsors and improved broadcasting deals in future. It is time for the white noise of the ‘development-is-more important-than-winning’ background to be tuned out, once and for all.

Both franchises have taken some positive steps towards improvement in the off-season. The Force should enjoy more tactical direction at half-back with Brumbies veteran Nic White and the last number 10 of the Jones era, ex-Waratah Ben Donaldson, in run-on harness; at the same time, they have lost significant cutting edge in the back three with the departures of Englishman Zack Kibirige and Fijian monster Manasa Mataele.

But it is the Rebels who have made the biggest strides forward, adding Taniela Tupou and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto where it really matters – in the front five – and sevens star Darby Lancaster to their backfield. There is real depth in the front row, where Cabous Eloff may now shift back to his preferred spot at loose-head to partner the Tongan Thor at prop, with Matt Gibbon, Sam Talakai and Pone Fa’amausili backing the pair up. Potentially, Salakaia-Loto and emerging 6ft 8ins colossus Josh Canham can form a top-class partnership in the second row behind them.

Tupou is an apt symbol for the current state of Australian rugby. His combination of physical size, power, and a unique ball-running skillset provoked an enormous tug-of-war between Australia and New Zealand when he first emerged from age-group level, but the prodigious talent in that massive frame has only been evident in spectacular fits and starts since. The time has come for the Tongan Thor to discover the weight at which he can operate without attracting injury, and fulfil the promise he flashed so often as a schoolboy.

It is symptomatic you have to roll the clock back a couple of seasons to discover his finest work. At his best, Tupou is one of the most destructive tight-head scrummagers anywhere on planet rugby.

 

 

 

Those are no mugs to whom Tupou is meting out the punishment in two of the three clips, they are two of the finest loose-heads in the world: France’s Cyrille Baille and a star of the recent World Cup, Ox Nche. The man in the middle is none other than the latest Queensland Reds recruit, ex-Blues loose-head Alex Hodgman. Like Baille, he is probably as surprised as any spectator to discover his feet keep parting company with Mother Earth as the pressure from Tupou ratchets up.

The big point of difference with Tupou – and probably the reason New Zealand campaigned so hard to cultivate his Kiwi identity – is the sheer range of his ball-carrying. He is one of only a handful of props across the rugby world equally comfortable handling in all three channels of an attacking field.

He can do the hard yakka off nine and win collisions against the toughest first receiver defence in the game.

 


He can play off 10 and run the precise lines required to find holes against defending backs in midfield.

 

 

At the other end of the scale, he can function effectively on the edge, running and offloading in the wide channels with devastating results.

 

 

There are plenty of front-rankers who can operate with power off the base of the ruck, a few who can run and handle proficiently in the middle of the field off the second pass, but hardly any who can operate like an extra back in the 5m channel. Tupou has the potential to be that special.

The problem for both the player in particular, and Australian rugby in general, is that rightfully we should have no business talking about a seasoned international player, now 27 years old with more than a half-century of Wallaby caps to his name, still sitting in the waiting room of ‘promise’ and ‘potential’.

If he had chosen the second option and decided to play his provincial rugby in New Zealand and represent the All Blacks, would we still be asking the same question and still awaiting an answer? I doubt it. The inherent, muscular psyche of New Zealand rugby would have detected both his strengths and his weaknesses, fortifying the one and patching up the other. It would have found out early on whether there was a Test-match animal remaining, after Tupou had been sieved, cleaned and polished up.

Australia is historically a nation of sporting winners, but even the most patient of Aussie rugby supporters are still waiting, after 27 combined seasons, for the Force and the Rebels to do what all sporting teams target as their first priority: to start winning games consistently and by doing so, create a winning culture.

A chain of climbers can only move at the speed of its slowest link, and in that sense Australian rugby cannot advance significantly until either team produces a winning season and reaches the play-offs. Until the situation at Super Rugby level improves, there will be no Wallaby mountaineers planting their flags at the summit.

Comments

109 Comments
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Derek Murray 152 days ago

Nice to read some good stuff on SR. That Rebels pack needs to play like they look. Mean and nasty, keep it tight rugby dominating opposition packs. Forget the backs; just smash em up front

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d 153 days ago

Thanks Nick, Tupou is great to watch. Do you think the rebels have made the right move keeping their coaching team stable? They haven't had much success but I hope by keeping faith they have improve. Surely a good coaching team can get the most out of this beast?

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Adrian 155 days ago

Thanks Nick
Tupon will certainly help Melbourne, and they should improve this year. On paper, all of the Australian teams should improve. They have all reinforced at prop, though not as obviously or spectacularly as Melbourne. The exception re props could be the Reds, but they do now have a propper coach.
The Australian teams need to win 2 or 3 games each per round against NZ teams and then they'll be taken seriously by the fans. It won't be easy. Getting on the front foot via the props and other tight forwards will allow the backs to function….because supporters need to see spectacular football with plenty of winning before they'll turn up.
If this happens the Wallabies will be able to improve their propping ranks and deliver front foot ball, even when Tuopo and Bell are off or injured. Clearly the most important positions along with a game manager style #10.

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Mitch 155 days ago

I love that try Tupou set up for Koroibete against South Africa. It would also help if he could stay on the field.

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Don M 155 days ago

Hey Nick. Talking of the Tongan Thor, that sort of look-alike prop with Bordeaux Begles is a mighty powerful runner. Presumably in a team of that standard, he scrums well to. Like Tupou, the fans love him. Good to see Pete Samu making his mark in the same team. Wish they had an email alert when you post. Happy New Year. I am really enjoying the Uk and French rugger.

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Pecos 155 days ago

The answer is “no”. He just needs to get back on the paddock consistently after an injury ridden past few years. He’s already said he wants to narrow his focus. Critically, it remains to be seen if he can move from injury prone to injury free. I wish him well.

As for Kiwis “laughing louder & longer”, most fans I speak to saw the Jones & McLennan circus as “funny not funny”. The Wallabies have beaten the ABs in 45 tests & so will always get our respect no matter what. They’ve earned that right.

Australia's issues have always been structural & as we know they are taking steps. The gutsy call would be to reduce to four super franchises after this RWC cycle. In the meantime an Aussie SRP silver bullet or saviour or flag waver in the form of a Taniela Tupou is no more than dust in the wind.

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Mzilikazi 155 days ago

Thanks for the in depth section on Taniela Tupou, Nick. “…..the prodigious talent in that massive frame has only been evident in spectacular fits and starts…..” That aptly sums up the man’s career with both Qld. and the WB’s. He would be one of the most frustrating players I have ever watched. The scrum power in those clips is something not often seen in the game these days. This kind of destruction was rampant back in the days of the 1974 Lions, with props of the ilk of the McLouglins, Ray and “Mighty Mouse”, Sean Lynch, to name some.

To me it just beggars all belief that Tupou has gone from that power scrummaging, to turning in, and disrupting his own scrum as much, if not more than the oppositions. On the one hand perhaps it is for the best that he is on the move down to the Rebels. But on the other, he may have develop to his best again under the Les Kiss coaching unit in Qld.

If he does return to his best again, both at the scrum, and as a carrier and ball distributor, he and Angus Bell will be a formidable duo for the WB’s. I hope he does.

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Jon 155 days ago

Tupou would still be the perfect NFL player fit, all go for 3 months of the year with his team riding him to the SB, or as a lethal super sub for the ABs forsure (though I wasn’t aware they and the Blues really made a effort to keep/sign him). You can’t help but think he’d be of more value in Australias setup if he were Bell size, even just 10kg lighter than he is now (and therefore more robust/reliable). Strangely enough I think that’s what he would have been forced to become (and why he left) in an NZ setup. I think it’s upto Australia, and now the Rebels, to get the most out of TUpou, not the other way round.

Even though the central agreements only happened months ago you have to think the spreading of talent to the Force and Rebels was part of this design? I would have actually been worried that would unsettle Force’s chances this year if it wasn’t for having such a strong coach. Tom Franklin will be a great addition but if they had a squad spot still free I think they would have for far better value out of getting a top pivot like Gareth Anscombe in for part of the season instead.

I’ve always enjoyed the 2 different dynamics each has brought over the years, I would hate to lose one through a lack of local support. Club wise I feel like theyve not done a lot wrong, and they both would have been fine in a world were the other conference doesn’t have 4 of the worlds strongest domestic sides at any one time.

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Ardy 155 days ago

In both franchises, there seems to be a lack of confidence based on average competence and I think they need to focus on core skills. I thought the Force was improving under Sampson and I hope he can assist the Rebels to win more games. I’m not sure about Foote as a coach. WA will be a good team this year as they have recruited well, the Twiggy assist is beneficial and I wonder if the ‘new’ RA will attempt to build a relationship with him.
The management team at the Rebels seem to be close to incompetence in trying to buy their way out of trouble.

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Willie 155 days ago

We will continue to struggle while there are 5 teams, even if “John” appoints the coaches!
Economic madness to have a team in AFL heartland and without SA teams in the Super comp there is no justification for the WA team. If SA was involved there MAY be some logistical justification for WA, otherwise they and Melbourne are drains on the overall competition both financially and playing resources.

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