A MAKESHIFT Scotland team did a pretty efficient job of despatching Tonga with minimal fuss on Saturday, but they are not yet finished dealing with the awesome rugby talent produced by that tiny Pacific Ocean archipelago (population circa 104,000).
Next up is Australia, which means dealing with the fearsome physical challenge posed by Taniela Tupou, their 5ft 10ins and 21 stone tight-head prop also known as ‘Tongan Thor’, who has a point to prove after suffering the indignity of being on the wrong end of a 53-26 score-line on his international debut against the same opposition at the same venue back in November 2017.
“It’s funny because I arrived at the hotel on Monday and got the key for my room, and they put me in the same room as I was back in 2017,” said the now 25-year-old. “It is good to be back and I’m looking forward to having another go against them. I haven’t watched that  game back, but we all know it wasn’t the best game for us, and hopefully we’ll change that around this weekend.”
Tupou was 21 when he came off the bench that day to fill the gap left in the Australian front-row created by the red-carding of Sekope Kepu for a reckless shoulder-charge on Hamish Watson late in the first half. He has since taken his cap total to 36, but for the vast majority of that time he seems to have been pigeon-holed as an impact sub, starting only seven of his first 32 games in the famous gold jersey.
However, he has now been on the field at the beginning of four games on the bounce and his form has been exceptional. He earned his place in the front line after a strong showing off the bench in Australia’s 28-26 surprise win over South Africa in the Rugby Championship on the Gold Coast in early September. The following week, he was outstanding in both the tight and loose for 78 minutes against the Springboks (again) in Bisbane, with his performance including dynamic ball-carrying and some fantastic handling skills which included a sensational offload to put Marika Koroibete away for the try that put the Wallabies in the driving seat in a 30-17 win.
Tupou then carried on in that vein in back-to-back wins for Australia over Argentina in Townsville and on the Gold Coast, and against Japan in Oita on a stopover en route to this end-of-year jamboree in the UK, which will also take in matches against England and Wales.
Despite the upheaval caused by the late call-offs of Japan-based trio Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon, the Wallabies arrived in the UK at the start of last week on a high, having won those last five games on the bounce, and Tupou has played an absolutely central role in that rich run of form.
“I’m a lot older now, not just a kid who has joined the team, so I can be myself around the boys,” he said. “I can offer something too, rather than sitting there wondering if I am going to play again.”
Tupou was born and grew up until the age of 14 in Tonga as the youngest in a family of 11 children. After being awarded a scholarship by Sacred Heart College in Auckland, his first real appearance on the radar of the wider rugby public came during his final school year in 2014, following an all-action performance in a match which was televised nationally and went viral globally, featuring the prop showing off the full gambit of raw power, pace and handling ability when running in three tries, including two from over 50 yards.
Coaches and scouts from across the rugby landscape took notice. He was pursued by English and French clubs, and the New Zealand rugby union put him under pressure to sign a loyalty agreement to play for the All Blacks as a prerequisite to representing their national schoolboys team. It is a reminder that Scotland is not the only rugby nation which treats national identity as a disposable commodity.
Tupou chose a different path. He had always supported the Wallabies, despite having never lived in the country up until that point, so he hopped on a plane to join Queensland Reds, beginning his three-year residency requirement which culminated in that inauspicious debut off the bench four years ago.
Of course, Tupou is not the only member of the Australian camp who feels they have a point to prove this weekend. A handful of other players in the current squad – including captain Michael Hooper and winger Koroibete – played in that 2017 humiliation, while head coach Dave Rennie, defence coach Matt Taylor and scrum coach Petrus du Plessis would love to get one over their former employers.
Tupou reveals that Taylor, in particular, is a man on a mission. “You can tell from the way he’s been at the beginning of this week that he really wants to win this game,” he explained.
“It means a lot to him, and he spoke to us about some of the players we need to go after, and what we need to do to win. So, we know what we need to do, and we just need to get out there and do it this weekend.”
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Rugby Australia’s Director of Rugby Scott Johnson will also be back on familiar territory this Sunday, having spent seven years on the Murrayfield payroll as assistant coach to the national team, interim head coach to the national team, and Director of Performance Rugby for Scottish Rugby, before heading back to his homeland in December 2018.
Reports from Australia indicate that this could be his farewell tour. With a shake-up of Rugby Australia’s performance department believed to be imminent, there is a strong suggestion that the 59-year-old could be one of the guys left stranded when the music stops, largely thanks to a salary believed to be in the region of $500,00 (£275,000) which the cash-strapped governing body can ill afford.
His contract is up at the end of the year, and it has been reported that the position could be discontinued. He can also no longer rely on the protection of Raelene Castle, the chief executive who appointed him, and who walked away from the organisation (before she was pushed) in April 2020 after losing the confidence and support of major stakeholders in the game, including her own Board.
Johnson said earlier this year he didn’t feel his job with Rugby Australia was finished yet but his prospects of holding on to the position can not have been helped by the Cooper, Kerevi and McMahon farrago, which ultimately cost Rennie three of his most important players for this trip.
The trio have opted to stay with their clubs in Japan for the time being rather than travel to Europe with the Australia squad. As Director of Rugby, the buck for failing to find the best solution for Australia in this situation ultimately stops with Johnson. He has been criticised for having the declared strategy of not engaging with agents as well as the players on this matter, which is interesting when you consider the preponderance of rugby staff tied into the giant talent agency Esportif employed by Scottish Rugby during his time in the Murrayfield hot-seat.
In fact, questions have also been raised in Australia about Esportif’s booming presence since Johnson’s appointment as DOR.
“Why are we getting all these coaches who are represented by Esportif?” asked Alan Jones in The Australian in January 2020, before describing what he viewed as “a continuing brazenness about the behaviour of those who administer our game”.
“What is going on when the once proud Rugby NSW becomes a transit lounge for journeyman coaches and administrators from New Zealand?” asked Jones. “From the outside, and few are welcome inside, it still looks as if Johnson and the Esportif sports agency are using the Waratahs franchise as a halfway house for struggling Kiwi coaches and administrators.”
“What is more disturbing, again from the outside, it appears that the Esportif agency is using their bevy of coaches to launch their player agency in Australia.
“Esportif set up shop in Sydney last year. They have been busy getting their coaches jobs in Australian rugby while at the same time signing up many of the successful Australian under-18 players.
“How has the NSW/Waratahs franchise fallen into this pit?”
“Is Johnson a shareholder of Esportif? And if not, why is he filling our coaching positions with mostly Kiwi coaches represented mostly by Esportif? Make no mistake, Esportif now have many coaches and decision-makers well placed in Australian rugby.
“Johnson has given them a huge leg-up as they launch their sports agent business in Australia.
“Understandably, Esportif can now run around signing young Australian players on the premise that they also represent the coaches who select players and make contract offers.
“It does not help that Johnson himself is represented by Esportif.
“As this company grows its business in Australia, we need to be aware of the influence over coaches and players that they are seeking and, indeed, exerting.
“The rugby family must ask itself if it is comfortable with Johnson using Esportif as a preferred supplier of coaches and players.”
Similar points were raised and questions asked during Johnson’s time in Scotland, most notably by Mark Palmer of The Sunday Times. A satisfactory explanation of this seemingly over-cosy relationship was never forthcoming.
Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the playing of the game always ended up being a suitable distraction. And so it will continue in the era of private equity and global marketing agencies, with players like the ‘Tongan Thor’ providing the box office appeal that the money men both thrive on and hide behind.