Taniela Tupou is expected to sign a four-year extension with Rugby Australia – but, crucially, he won’t announce which Super Rugby franchise he will play for until he knows who will coach Queensland beyond 2023.
The future of Tupou is the biggest piece of the puzzle in Australian rugby at present – and dual international and Queensland Reds coach Brad Thorn is central to the debate raging across the land about the tight-head prop.
They are not quite Justin Langer areas, but Thorn’s role at the Reds has become increasingly vexed in Australian rugby, foxsports.com.au understands.
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Those in his inner sanctum, including some players but especially general manager Sam Cordingley, believe Thorn has not been given the credit he deserves for turning around Queensland’s fortunes over the past five years after the Reds fell off a cliff following Ewen McKenzie’s departure in 2013.
Others, however, believe Thorn has become part of the problem at the Reds, with a number of players stalling in their development with his technical nous questioned.
From Izack Rodda to Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, Jordan Petaia to Harry Wilson, a number of players destined for stardom have either plateaued or regressed, left the franchise or stayed put for now.
Take Petaia’s clumsy display on Saturday at Eden Park. The 22-year-old, who was arguably Australia’s best player in the 2019 World Cup in his third Test and first at outside centre, played like the wind had been taken out of his sails.
It is no surprise given the mixing and matching at both the Reds and Wallabies on where to play the prodigious back.
Wilson was one of Australian rugby’s best line-runners when he burst on the scene in 2020, but his lack of footwork – previously a feature of his game – was exposed when he ran a ball back at Eden Park and was clobbered in the first-half.
Tupou is another whose development has stalled.
At Super Rugby his size and athleticism has become a force to be reckoned with in the looser helter-skelter nature of the tournament, but the 25-year-old has yet to dominate a Test from the outset while his scrummaging remains suspect.
The Reds are eager to re-sign Tupou, rightly believing he can be the poster boy of the franchise for years to come.
They see him as someone they have invested in ever since Cordingley helped lure Tupou to the Reds from Auckland and helped him on his path to the Wallabies.
But whether or not he stays with the Reds beyond next year’s World Cup remains an intriguing situation and could well rest on whether Thorn’s contract is extended.
For now, Rugby Australia, as part of their move towards a new contracting model where the governing body will sign its top tier players, have taken over Tupou’s negotiations.
He is likely to sign a new four-year deal on a deal worth an estimated $1 million per season, which includes the option of a sabbatical, taking him through to the 2027 World Cup, but as part of the new contracting model will not have to decide which Super Rugby franchise he joins until a later point – likely once Thorn’s future is sorted at the Reds.
“We’re talking directly with Taniela and his representatives about what a longer term future looks like,” Rugby Australia CEO Andy Marinos said following the announcement of next year’s Super Rugby draw.
“He certainly expressed a very strong interest and desire to commit himself to Australian rugby going forward. So those conversations are ongoing.”
Queensland Rugby CEO David Hanham said Tupou was “critical” to the Reds.
“I know Andy’s been working with Taniela over the last few months around his future and getting that sorted,” he said.
“He’s critical for us.
“He’s developed as a ballplayer, he’s now developed as a scrummager.
“We feel like a lot of his growth, both on and off the field, has been sort of nurtured by the coaching group over that time and he’s become a world class player.
“I know he’s been troubled with a bit of injury at the moment, but what can the next five to six years look like for Taniela? If we can get him to that point now, what’s the next phase look like?
“So he’s definitely part of our plan.
“Having a strong tight-head prop of his standard is going to be critical to the team’s success in the long-term future.”
At the same time, Hanham said the Reds were in discussions with Thorn about his future beyond 2023.
“We’re talking to Brad about what the future holds over the next few months,” he said.
“He’s looking at a few things internally about what he wants to do beyond next year.
“He’s definitely keen.
“He’s keen to have a good year next year and he obviously wants to be part of the future, so we’re just working through what that looks like over the next two to three months.”
To address some of the discontent at the Reds, as well as ease some of the load on Thorn, highly respected Queensland University coach Mick Heenan has been brought on in a new position.
Whether or not he could potentially take over from Thorn, should the decision be made not to extend his contract, remains to be seen, but it would be a huge leap to go from a club coach to the Reds boss in 12 months.
Nonetheless, Hanham said the Reds were “excited” about Heenan, adding “I think any coach of our three there are guys that you‘d look at as potential for succession.”