The Wests Tigers have had a year to forget.
Surrounded by off-field controversy, on-field issues and the looming problems of their halves combination, it has been a tough two seasons to be a Tigers fan. But, as the Tigers look for their first win in 2023 and try not to reclaim the Wooden Spoon, one player has shone above the rest to offer a glimmer of hope for the club's future.
His name is Junior Tupou.
The 20-year-old, a former rugby union prospect, has only been with the club for two years but has already made headways within the squad.
An ex-New South Wales representative in his junior days (U16s and U18s), Tupou was awarded becoming a member of the Junior Wallabies before he jumped over to Concord, switching codes.
From the moment he stepped onto the footy field, he has shown the potential to become a future New Zealand international. Making his debut against the Cowboys last season, his terrific aerial try made him one of the highlights of ‘Magic Round'.
Since he has scored another two in only seven appearances, a surprising statement considering he looks like a seasoned battler on the wing.
Finishing 2022 off strong, Tupou came into the new season red-hot with a great showing against the Canberra Raiders in the pre-season challenge. Unanimously the best player on the day, he couldn't have asked for a better statement from Tim Sheens after the game.
“When he grows up and realises how good he can be, he'll be something. He's a 105kg winger and can still play (Jersey) Flegg,” the 2005 premiership coach said.
Not being selected for the first two games against Gold Coast Titans and Newcastle Knights, he entered the team in Round 3 and has not left the starting team. This comes as a positive to his work rate, as Sheens and the coaching staff have tried multiple combinations with most players being utilised in another position or reserve grade.
While it may have taken him time to get going, Tupou illustrated his full potential in Round 6 against the Parramatta Eels. Running like a freight train, he made eight tackle busts and four line breaks, with most of the coming from the middle of the field.
Finishing the game with a game-high 221 run metres, he was close to having a near-perfect performance, despite a single error that gifted his opposition a try.
"He's a freak. Just watching his carries on the way back, (I'm) so proud of him. To be that young too, he's really composed, great under the high ball and just works his backside off for this team. Just to see him get off started like that it really is a pleasure," Captain Apisai Koroisau said about the 20-year-old.
After receiving praise from his captain and coach, Tupou would later be on the end of compliments from his opponents. Finding it challenging to compete against the 105kg winger on Easter Monday, Mitchell Moses applauded his efforts stating, “he tore us to shreds”.
"He put us under the pump, that Junior Tupou. For a young kid, I thought, how he was carrying the ball, he was unbelievable for them, and he tore us to shreds really, and he hurt us. So, it's a credit to him,” Moses said.
Relying on Ken Maumalo and David Nofoaluma last season, the Tigers have taken a different approach this year as they look to build towards the future. As Maumalo settles into the Gold Coast Titans set-up, Nofoaluma has become a regular for the Western Suburbs Magpies in the NSW Cup after the first three NRL rounds.
Opting to go down a different route has allowed the Tigers to utilise Asu Kepaoa (23), Starford To'a (22), Tommy Talau (22), Charlie Staines (22) and Tupou (20) more, producing one of the youngest backlines in the NRL.
Tim Sheens also has Triston Reily (24), another ex-union player, and Jahream Bula (21), a utility back from the famed Keebra Park - who is set to make his NRL debut on Sunday - on the roster if he needs.
All eyes will be on Bula this Sunday, with high expectations on his shot from Sheens and the Tigers faithful. An unknown rookie to begin the year, most fans know him due to the constant praise put on him by the coaching staff and players around him.
— NBWT (@NBWT__) April 18, 2023
While Bula started the season as the third contender, he has finally evolved into the primary fullback receiving the nod ahead of Charlie Staines (who will begin on the wing) and Daine Laurie (who will begin on the bench).
Labelled by Sheens as a contender earlier this season, he told The Sydney Morning Herald Bula "will be a kid who comes out of nowhere".
At the time, no individual would have tipped the basketball convert to receive a first-grade minute and leapfrog, Laurie, but that has since come to fruition.
Originally discovered by the Gold Coast Titans, injuries have allowed him to make his mark on Sunday. In which is a shocking turn of events for the club; all three fullback contenders will play this week.
While his debut could have been more anticipated, he has earnt the support of another fullback at the club- Daine Laurie.
"He's been carving up," Daine Laurie said to Fox Sports at the beginning of the season on Bula.