Analysis: How the Reds need to use the Tongan Thor
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: When the 18-year-old Sacred Heart College prop went viral in 2014, it was the sheer fascination of a 130kg front rower tearing a team apart returning kicks that captured everyone’s imagination.
Taniela Tupou was such a unique prospect. He has the speed of an outside back and the power of two loose forwards. However, his first full season of Super Rugby in 2017 didn’t bear much fruit. Understandably, it has taken time for Tupou to develop into a Super Rugby level prop, which has impatient fans writing him off too soon.
Going to the Reds, one of the worst teams in Super Rugby also didn’t help. Last year they did not use him the way he needs to be used. The more situations in which he can wind up amplifies the amount of damage he can cause.
The Reds under Brad Thorn this year have shown a willingness to open up the playbook and find more ways to unleash the power of Thor. Here’s what they have done and how they can unlock Tupou’s potential.
One of the areas where Tupou has been underutilised as a ball-carrying option is the set piece.
As he is tied up with scrummaging duties every time they pack down, the lineout is the only scenario where he can be used in this capacity. Just using him as a lifter like a regular prop misses an opportunity to get the ball in his hands.
The Reds have used a number of 4-man and 5-man lineout packages to allow Tupou to be placed in the back line. Their typical setup is three ball carriers outside 10 for a midfield crash.
Here the Reds have Tupou as the second running option outside 10, and below as the first running option. They run a 1-2 cut as if Tupou was playing inside centre.
The preference for the Reds has been to use the attention Tupou receives to work other players into the game.
A common tactic when Tupou is set as the second option is to run a screen pass behind him to the free Caleb Timu (6) wrapping out the back. This, unfortunately, results in fewer carries for him, and the pass is often delivered too early to be effective for Timu.
In other situations, we see Tupou start wider and become part of the second phase after the crash ball. Below, Kerevi (12) takes the hit-up.
Tupou often goes unused as a decoy or simply not the preferred carrier on the second phase. On this occasion, above, he ends up cleaning for Timu (6).
The Reds have started to show more intent by involving Tupou off the lineout but prefer to use him as a decoy. The majority of lineout plays for the Reds set a midfield ruck, with either one of the forward carriers or Kerevi. There has been no desire to use Tupou wider directly off the lineout or find more complex ways to create space for him.
The team seems committed to one-dimensional crash plays to reset pattern or look to run little switch plays from. This is an area of the game that the Reds will hopefully continue to open up and look to integrate Tupou to maximise his ball-carrying opportunities.
Thorn’s 1-3-3-1 system is not a well-tuned machine yet. A number of the young and experienced forwards find themselves over-committing to rucks leaving the team short, after a few phases. The pattern falls apart fairly quickly, stalling the Reds attack.
Here there are at least four Reds players at the ruck with no Brumbies contesting. The Reds first phase looks fine but the setup for the next is shaky. Tupou the edge forward will have to move in. This is a common occurrence when reviewing Reds phase play.
When they do fall into the pattern, Tupou finds himself often looking for a tip pass running off the lead runner, which tends to be withheld by the ball carrier.
The flashes of ‘Thor’ we have seen from Tupou this season is when the Reds get the pattern right and he is afforded space on the edge as the one forward positioned out there.
He has been damaging down the tramlines often committing multiple defenders and freeing up his outside support.
The full Thor experience
For Tupou to become the attacking superpower he could be the Reds have to generate decent ball to him on the flanks, maximise and his lineout carries and consider one crazy (good kinda crazy) option – releasing Tupou on a counter-attack.
It’s where he has made such an impact at all levels or rugby so far but has yet to be seen in Super Rugby. A number of teams sometimes use their Number 8 in some capacity in this role, so it’s not so farfetched to put Tupou in these situations.
Holding Tupou back in situations where the opposition is in exit mode and using quick lineouts to release him will put fear in the hearts of every winger on kick coverage duties. Tupou averages the second most tackle breaks of any prop, third most line breaks, but only carries five times a game (10th for all props).
If they can increase that to 10-12 carries a game (in the right situations) they will have the most damaging forward in Super Rugby.