At the start of this year’s Super Rugby tournament, Taniela Tupou cheekily said ‘show me the money’.

At the time, it seemed all but certain that Rugby Australia would fulfill the wishes of the ‘Tongan Thor’ and make the Queensland Reds the next $1million Wallaby.

In doing so, he would take up the mantle of Michael Hooper as the game’s most recognizable Wallaby.

This wrecking ball, after all, was the headline. Known around the world for his thunderous ball carrying and destructive scrum, Tupou was put on the billboards and was the new face of Australian rugby.

If there was a rugby commercial, Tupou was the star of the show. For good reason too. Tupou is the most athletically gifted striker in Wallabies history.

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Taniela Tupou (C) is set to be the Wallabies’ next $1million man. Photo: AFPSource: Getty Images

The 26-year-old, having played 42 Tests, the tight-headed stalwart will start on the bench against the Springboks on Saturday.

That’s why RA considered what offer to offer him – probably a four-year contract extension. A matter further complicated by Tupou’s relationship with the Reds, who still have him on the books for 2023.

Tupou can open a game off the bench, but it’s questionable whether he can dominate a Test from the start, an opportunity he’s had 15 times in the No.3 shirt.

That jersey on Saturday will be worn by the reliable, if less adventurous, Allan Alaalatoa who returns to the starting line-up after missing the devastating second Test against Argentina in San Juan a fortnight ago.

“We need more from him, he is well aware of that, he was quite disappointed with his effort in the second Test,” Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said of Tupou.

Tupou wants to be – and could be – the best accessory in the world, but he’s arguably not even Australia’s best accessory. Loose prop Angus Bell, 22, is already set to take over.

Bell has work to do with his scrum (no prop is the complete scrummer at his age, with the dark arts taking years to master), but his no-nonsense attitude and work-rate set him on the path to greatness.

Angus Bell is one of the best young props in the world. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

The world’s best props play for over 40 minutes. Irishman Tadhg Furlong – widely regarded as the headstrong first – has been doing it for years, as has Frenchman Cyril Baille while Springbok trio Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff and Trevor Nyakane have become the ‘bomb squad’ of international rugby.

On his last Test start, Tupou was well beaten by second-year international stalwart Thomas Gallo.

Why has Tupou’s development stalled?

Insiders attribute it to two reasons. The first is that he is still a child in the body of a great man.

The Tonga-born prop is the ultimate class clown who often plays tricks on his teammates. That’s what makes him such a beloved character, but taking care of business on the pitch is what matters most.

Taniela Tupou told Dave Rennie (C) to “show me the money” earlier this year. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

He also loves toys, from cars to jet skis, and has been known to buy whatever he wants.

Where Hooper and Folau were exemplary figures off the pitch, Tupou’s behavior worries those signing the checks.

An example is that after his calf injury in May, Tupou gained weight. It is understood that he exploded at around 145kg.

When RA caught wind of Tupou’s ballooning weight, they took over the prop’s rehab program.

Even now, most observers think Tupou is playing too hard.

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Taniela Tupou (R) training alongside frontline teammates James Slipper and Folau Fainga’a on August 2, 2022 in Buenos Aires. Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

The second aspect highlighted by insiders is the coaching Tupou has received in recent years.

A widely held opinion from Queensland is that some players, particularly forwards, are not progressing enough under coach Brad Thorn’s programme.

Thorn was a leader by action and since taking over from Nick Stiles, one criticism of the coach is his technical prowess. This could be why former Rugby Australia director of rugby Scott Johnson is fitting in more with the Reds after being a consultant in 2022.

Tupou’s frustrations of being overused at Super Rugby level have also been building up for years. This is partly why Tupou is likely to leave the Reds at the end of 2023 even if he re-signs with RA.

Every Australian Super Rugby franchise is said to be chasing Tupou, but only the Force and the Rebels are likely to be pictured signing him.

All of this is taking place as RA struggle to change their contract model, with the national governing body looking to hire their star players and top talent directly while leaving Super Rugby teams to deal with mid-level players.

This means Tupou could sign a deal with RA this year and later determine which Super Rugby franchise he chooses to pursue his career.

Taniela Tupou is set to sign a four-year contract with Rugby Australia. But will he continue playing for the Reds after next year’s World Cup? Photo: Getty ImagesSource: Getty Images

The other factor in negotiations with Tupou is whether a sabbatical will be included in a potential deal.

Queensland Rugby was previously open to including one or even two sabbaticals in his contract to reduce the financial burden of having such a highly touted player available for the Wallabies.

Japan would be the perfect country to spend a season in as the players are being treated and coming back fully fit. But for a foreign club to want Tupou for a short time is another thing.

At least one powerful Japanese club would have ignored his CV.

Although Tupou is a marketer’s dream, he doesn’t bring the same leadership credentials and doesn’t have the same overall package as Wallabies captain Hooper.

This all plays out with Tupou talking quite openly about his contract this year.

“Show me the money,” he said after the first round of Super Rugby.

“I’m kidding – I’m not kidding though. Go Rennie.

Taniela Tupou crushes an English tea party ahead of the three-match Test series against England. Photo: Stan SportsSource: Supplied

In an interview with Wide World of Sports in April, Tupou said he was “ready for a change”.

“I’ve been in the same place for almost nine years now, so I can’t wait to see and challenge myself somewhere else now. We’ll see what happens.

“Yeah, it would be cool not to crash Super Rugby and go somewhere like Japan. Just enjoy a bowl of noodles and just play somewhere different.

Ahead of his return against England in Brisbane in July, Tupou said the two months on the sidelines had been the best thing for his career.

“I don’t know how to put it into words, but I think being injured was the best thing that ever happened to me mentally and physically – and I was ready for something different,” he said.

The question is what is the right price for Tupou? After all, $1m is a big sum for a player who often only plays 20-30 minutes off the bench in international rugby.

How the Wallabies continue to use Taniela Tupou will be fascinating. Photo: AFPSource: AFP

That said, the modern game has seen the reinvention of the bench, with “finishers” and “bomb squads” now more than just vernacular but tactical.

Indeed, the Springboks’ substitute props are arguably stronger than the starters and this tactic, including getting Malcolm Marx off the bench, is due to there being more and more scrums in a second half. time and the last 20 minutes after the often winning ones.

Marx was brought on in the minutes before half-time against the All Blacks recently. Could it be the same with Tupou?

At this point, Rennie didn’t use the tactic, often giving him around 30 minutes. But is it enough?

Some believe that if he were to walk away from Australian rugby, it would be the best thing to do.

The Wallabies could still choose him under their Overseas Eligibility Act, but many believe he would return to Australia because he is a ‘homebody’.

Others think signing Tupou to a four-year contract would be reckless and a two-year deal until the Lions Series in 2025 would be better.

Such a deal would be a one-sided bet giving the powers that be time to assess whether Tupou can fulfill his potential as the best rower in the game, without breaking the bank.

At 26, Tupou’s peak years are ahead of him but the next month will be telling. Direct scrummage and through his opponents and Tupou can end the debate. For now though, the jury is out on whether Tupou will live up to the bill.

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