The 22-year-old is coming off a breakout performance in the win over the Blues a fortnight ago – a coming of age display for a young man who, until then, had largely under-delivered on his huge potential.
A football player till his last year of primary school, Tupaea was then a star in rugby through Hamilton Boys’ High, captaining the New Zealand Secondary Schools team, then dazzling in his maiden provincial season with Waikato in 2018.
Seemingly unlucky not to pick up a Super Rugby contract for 2019, he in fact knew he had a two-year deal with the Chiefs waiting for him from 2020, but it’s been somewhat of a slow burn transforming his talents onto the bigger stage.
The key, it seems, now 15 games into his Super career, is a move back to No 12, helped no end by the unselfishness of All Blacks midfield mate Anton Lienert-Brown.
“I started off playing second-five during school and club, so it was an easy move for me to go back there,” Tupaea said.
“I think I sort of got pushed into the centre role with Dwayne Sweeney at 12 during Mitre 10 [Cup], and then coming in Anton was already established at 12.
“I think 12 suits my game a bit better. And Anton is happy to slot in wherever he can I guess.
“He’s sort of letting me play where I want to play. So he’s a good guy.
“Second-five, you probably get your hands on the ball a bit more, being a bit in closer to it. Centre, it’s a bit harder to defend, second-five you get more front-on tackles, you’re not really looking at back doors and stuff, so it's sort of easier to play there.”
Indeed, Tupaea has been a big defensive presence. After missing the opening match against the Highlanders with a hamstring injury he’s played every minute of the next three, making 17 tackles against the Crusaders (behind only Sam Cane’s 20), then a game-high 14 against the Hurricanes.
Then against the Blues came a burst of action with the ball, producing game-high numbers on run metres (89), defenders beaten (nine), clean breaks (four) and offloads (two).
“I think it was getting some good front-foot ball, and attacking the line a bit more,” he said of the key to that performance. “The last couple of games had been more defence-focused for myself, so it was good to get some running ball there.”
Tupaea feels that achieving a self-directed off-season goal of bulking up by a couple of kilograms has certainly helped his game, and while there is a fine balance between not wanting to lose his pace at the same time, he believes, if anything, he has actually got faster.
It points to a big work ethic, which coach Clayton McMillan – who picked Tupaea for a Māori All Blacks debut last year – loves about him, and which, combined with consistent selection and having Lienert-Brown on his outside shoulder, is brewing big things.
“You just can’t beat time in the saddle,” McMillan said. “He came in as a young bloke with some pretty high expectations externally, and sometimes when you don’t live up to them immediately, that can create a little bit of undue pressure on you, and he may have been a victim of that last year.
“But, amongst one or two other guys, he never has a bad day of training, that guy. For a young guy, he’s the ultimate professional. So he’s only going to get better and better, and he deserves the rewards that he’s getting over the last few games.”
The big focus for Tupaea now, is the accuracy of his post-contact distribution, with the Chiefs knowing they must be more clinical in finishing off the chances they create.
They are also now hunting a first win since 2018 over the Highlanders, who are fresh off their 33-12 upset of the Crusaders.
“Happy to take the underdog tag this week, as we have for every other week,” McMillan quipped.
“We know that they bring a lot of variation to their game, so you have to expect the unexpected. But, also, they just don’t go away, they just keep fighting, they’re a resilient team, and we’ve seen that under a bit of adversity that resilience has really come to the fore.
“So they’ll be bloody tough to beat. But we’ve made some progress in our own game over the last few weeks, and we go down there confident.”