The Scrum Bar at Goldington Road in Bedford, a place where the past alights. The walls are adorned with photographs of XVs stretching back generations. Sons and fathers; grandfathers before them. Hundreds of men, facing the camera with the same scowling expression; lined up in rows, perpetually bound together as a team. A singular representation of a whole season of victory and defeat, of toil and graft, all wearing the same shirt. The only change to the room each year is the appearance of one more frame. Nothing is taken away. Just added.
Paul Tupai and I talk at a table, under the knowing gaze of all that history. He has started speaking at some pace. Of how he came to be at Bedford; the incredible turn of events that took a thirty-one year old at the apparent end of his playing career, away from Rotorua and the fabled Bay of Plenty, and set him on the unlikely path to a dozen more years professional rugby in England. The stories come tumbling out; about having had retired only for Michael Jones to invite him into the Samoan fold; the ugly and bloody international at Twickenham where Alesana Tuilagi and Lewis Moody got red carded; Budge Pountney enquiring, in no uncertain terms, if Tupai could come to Northampton and beat people up; his introduction to Bedford and his now cast-iron relationship with the club and its people; his fortune with injuries and how it’s all just kept on going until now: his tenth seasonal rhapsody in blue. I can barely keep up.
The irony of all this information being ushered forth is not lost on me. This Samoan International and I have previous. Many has been the time where he has declined to talk to me. My role as a former media front for the Bedford Blues meant being in charge of getting a good soundbite off players. I knew better than to venture towards Toops. His wide berth around any media is well known; he doesn’t like the chance of being misconstrued. Indeed, when asked about his presence on a rugby pitch, he is forthright in his appraisal: “I don’t tend to speak; actions are far more important.”
But let’s go back to the beginning. Born and raised in Rotorua, amongst those famous lakes, on New Zealand’s North Island: the noble sport of boxing was what he really wanted to do. “But my mum wasn’t happy,” he recalls, the Kiwi accent flattening the vowels and deepening in strength as he regresses. “She was like: my son is not going to do a sport where he could get his head bashed in. So my dad took me to Judo. It was fun and I was quite good, but my participation ended rather abruptly. I lost against a kid who was better than me, and I laid him out on the canvas. They wouldn’t let me back. Rugby was the option from then on.”
He played a few seasons of amateur rugby; Ngongotaha in Rotorua for two years straight out of school and then Rangiuru in Te Puke. Taking the field as a nervous young man because, “There were some big fullas who really wanted to do me harm…” But having avoided the fists and flying boots, it wasn’t long before senior provincial representation came knocking. Tupai ended up playing over a hundred games during an eleven year period for the Bay of Plenty, a number that puts him towards the top of an all time list. A Ranfurly Shield win under Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt was a memorable highlight. “Paul is an unforgettable character,” says Cotter, “A great competitor, one of the key hearts in that Bay side that won the shield after 90 years of trying. There was always blood on his jersey; he expected it to be his, and if it was someone else’s, all the better.” Big Vern knows a good blood shedder when he meets one.
So it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Paul Tupai as having two rugby careers. He had officially finished playing back in New Zealand. Then came the phone call from Michael Jones. I guess if the legendary All Blacks loose forward starts speaking, you tend to listen; Tupai did. Talked into an international cap or five and a tour of England in late 2005. And watching on in the stand was Budge Pountney, the Northampton Director of Rugby, a man who appreciated the shadier parts of town; the Saints needed Toops to lurk on street corners. He paused for a few days, said no originally, worried about uprooting his family, but ended up thinking that things could be undone if they went wrong. And so, with two young children in tow and his wife by his side, he left on Boxing Day and was playing on January 1st at Franklin’s Gardens.
A brutal enforcer on the field, he enjoyed three seasons patrolling the park in black, green and gold. But it was his off the field relationship with Dylan Hartley that was perhaps most significant. “From day one I gravitated towards Toops,” the England Captain explains. “I think mentoring is a dying art and it was something I was lucky enough to receive from him. Analysis, leadership and contracts have all been discussed over the years but most importantly, there’s always been a bed, a table full of food and a family environment. There’s no doubt, Toops is one of the reasons why I am where I am today.”
Tupai shrugs his shoulders. “He (Hartley) was on an academy wage and so I looked after him. He was from Rotorua. His dad and my dad knew each other. I cooked him lasagnes, bought him beer, and he and his brother would come round and look after my kids when me and Nadine went out. I gave him the support he needed. I did what anyone would do.”
That is Tupai’s greatest strength: looking after people. His role at the Blues became about making sure the squad was together. George Kruis, the British & Irish Lion, who played a formative season alongside Toops in the Bedford side back in 2010/11, describes our man as ‘physical and unforgiving; in charge of the social and making sure the funnel was never far away’. “Young players need guidance these days; someone to tell them when they make a mistake,” says Tupai.
“I don’t like a lack of respect: in life and in rugby. Respect the club, the team, the game. There are those players who come in and think they can just say or do what they like; that don’t respect those who have been there before them. I’ve seen a few. But many of the fullas who’ve come through while I’ve been here, have been good lads. People who I could’ve told you would go on and play international rugby. They understood what this club was, what it stood for, and their role. Rugby’s a simple game. It’s about your mates. If you are tight off the field, you’ll be tight on it. Success off the pitch is what it’s about. It’s about characters. Get the right people, the right personalities, you’ll have a team that works. It’s like Gareth Davies (the former club president and kit man who stepped down from the Blues at the end of last season). He’s given fifty years of his life to this club and you know what he said to me the last time he was in that changing room laying out the shirts? ‘This club has given me more than I ever gave the club.’ And he’s been here fifty years. That’s respect right there. No one is bigger than the club. No one is bigger than rugby. If you think that, you’re pretty much out the door for me.”
That is when our discussion turns to the end. About what will disappear out of Paul Tupai’s life in less than a year. He is living a sentence; a countdown in days. I ask how he feels about what lays beyond the horizon.
“I am scared,” he says, the pause knelling between us like a bell. “I am trying to prepare myself for that day; I talk about it with my wife. The day I won’t be able to walk into a locker room. The fun you have and the things you say. You can’t get it anywhere else. If you’ve not played rugby and been in the changing shed, you won’t understand that. It’s not with my family, it’s not down the pub. Where will I get that buzz, where will I get the release it gives me? That’s what I’ll miss. And when you think about it, I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years and the next minute, it’s being taken away from me.”
“I thought about it last year. Maybe more this year, because I know it’s coming. Before I would say, ‘Oh, this is my last year’ but I knew deep down it wasn’t. But now I know, and I am worried. I know that I’ll be ok but I’ve gotta take a hit. It’ll be big because of how much I’ve taken from the game. When you’ve played as much as me, you’ve taken a lot of love. It’ll be tough.”
Tupai takes a steadying breath and his legs bounce anxiously beneath the table. His eyes move out the window and across the Goldington Road pitch. He hopes I can’t see it. But much like the joy that fizzed so effervescently in the opening salvo of our discussion, the growing disquiet is palpable. And of course, he’s right. Stepping away from the game will be like a death in the family. Tupai can see it coming; it’s a long goodbye. If retirement is the price you pay for playing: Toops has quite the bill.
I feel it wise to move him away from the ledge. I ask whether ten years at Bedford was always the goal. “Oh yeah, yeah, when I got past five, into my sixth and seventh season, I started thinking about ten and how cool it would be.” The bounce is back in his sentences. “You keep these things to yourself but I always knew. This club has been so special to me. I remember being at Saints and sitting down with Jim Mallinder, and he said, ‘We could sign you for another year Toops but these guys (Bedford) want you’. And when I’d played here with Saints, I’d thought ‘this is special’; it’s like a club back home. The relationships I’ve built with Mike (Rayer) and Hynesy (Martin Hynes), Larks (Paul Larkin), the fans, everyone. It’s very special. Ten years playing is what I want to give them. I did it for Bay of Plenty. This club means as much.”
And the best bit? From all those seasons? “When I see my son in preseason with me, like I did this year. Being part of the squad, part of the social. I felt so proud. He’s part of the Saints Academy but loves this club as much as I do. Connor knows what it’s about. This place has given him that. He was seven years old and running the tee on. I just hope he enjoys what he does. Because that’s what it is all about. You have to want to get out to training every day. If you ever dread pulling on your boots, then it’s time to stop.”
I ask if he has any advice for a young man just starting out. “Enjoy it, respect the game, and you know what,” his face lights up and he leans in towards me. “I’d tell young players, if you’re ever dropped or a contract isn’t renewed, don’t shit on that club. Don’t get the knives out because it’ll come back to bite you. Rugby is a small town. People talk. If a club doesn’t want you, keep your thoughts to yourself and go find another club. There’s a place for everyone. But I’ve been asked a few times, ‘Hey Toops, what do you think of so and so.’ You meet the same people on the way up, as you do on the way down. Do everything you can to keep doors open. I guess it comes back to respect, doesn’t it?”
Paul Tupai leaves me with a warm smile and a handshake. An obvious exhalation of breath is followed by him joking about my holiday tan. We laugh and nod, and go our separate ways. He’s difficult to describe: truly unique. So tough and enduring, yet soft; the type of man you’d choose to look after you, wherever you were going. Mike Rayer calls him “the greatest signing I ever made”. Toops has looked after Bedford all this time.
We step out from the Scrum Bar, from beneath all those team photos that have been bearing down; that history, tugging at Toops’ elbow, beckoning him in. On the wall at Goldington Road, there are nine team photographs with Paul Tupai in them; soon to be ten. Many more without: a fact that would not escape the attention of the man himself. Sons and fathers; grandfathers before them. Victory and defeat. Toops will be in that room forever. Stood alongside his teammates, representing his club, framed in perpetuity. And there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
Sam Roberts © 2017. (Text only). All Rights Reserved
Dedicated to the memory of Timothy Powis.