They’ve endured a wretched season of drama, uncertainty and unfavourable headlines but veteran Cronulla back-rower Anthony Tupou believes on the field the under-siege Sharks are doing just fine and are on track for their first ever premiership title.
Cronulla have suffered myriad distractions this season in the wake of the much-publicised ASADA investigation, but it is the focus and performance of the Sharks’ football team in the face of the dramas that has NRL fans talking.
The recently re-signed Tupou says that while his tenacious team, currently seven-and-six entering Round 16, is aiming to consolidate their position in the top eight, their focus this Sunday night is solely on beating a desperate Cowboys team looking to launch a late charge to the playoffs.
“On their day they’re going to turn up and it’s going to be a hard game – looking at their side they’re really strong whoever they pick,” Tupou says of the 14th-placed Cowboys who beat the Dragons in their most recent match.
“[Playing in Townsville] is weird, it’s different – you go up there and even the weather’s different. The atmosphere’s different. You’re playing in front of people who have a lot of pride in where they’re from and in their remote communities… and James Tamou will be looking forward to a big game.
“Without worrying about them, though, we’re desperate for these points and we’re going to go up there and give it everything.”
The four-time NSW and 11-time Australian representative back-rower says his team – in his words the best Cronulla squad he’s been a part of – is planning to launch a charge into the top four and earn two ‘bites’ at the title come finals time. It would be a miraculous effort for a team under such scrutiny – a club whose future some experts feared for as little as a month ago.
“We want to get into the top four and we think we can do that within the next few weeks if we’re ‘on’ hopefully… if we can get a top-four position by the end of the year and have two shots at it we’ll give it a good crack,” Tupou enthuses.
“We’ll be in with a good chance – we’ve had a bad start to the year, we won’t talk about that but everyone knows it – but I think we’re doing okay considering.
“I was a part of a good [team] when I came here but that was a bad year 2009 – everything really fell apart – but that was a talented roster on paper and this year we’ve got that same thing and the last few weeks it’s been coming together. I feel like this is a year where we’re really making the most of having that good roster.”
This season, Tupou is re-emerging as one of the game’s premier ball-playing back-rowers and an integral member of the strong Cronulla squad. The wide-running second-rower has proven effective both with ball in hand and defensively – a reason why coach Shane Flanagan opted to keep him at the club for seasons 2014 and 2015. For Tupou, his return to form as a line-busting and hole-creating forward has been a long time coming, after a frustrating and emotionally challenging few years in which his on-field efforts suffered.
“I’ve heard a lot of that talk, that I’m in form as well, and I feel good and I’m happy with the way I’m playing, but I want to keep it up – it’s about being consistent,” Tupou, who has endured crippling knee injuries in recent seasons as well as the passing of his sister in 2010, says.
“It’s an easy way out to say that my knee is that much better, because it is, but I was able to do the full pre-season this year which I wasn’t able to do in maybe three to four years. I think that makes a big difference, being able to run and then come in. Last year I didn’t run until the first trial – I did no pre-season on my legs – and I was sort of under-done. This year you sort of hit the ground running when you’ve done a full pre-season. That could be a big part, plus the quality of players around you makes a big difference as well.”
Tupou, softly spoken and thoughtful, says his decision to remain in the Shire was not motivated by money or security but more by a debt of gratitude he feels he owes the club.
“It was a big decision – it wasn’t easy because of the things I have to think of like my family and that but in the end it was the support through this whole negotiation, it was like I had a feeling the players and the coaches wanted me to stay,” Tupou, who turned 30 in March, says.
“It was just good to know they wanted me to stay around after… I’ve had some up-and-down years here and it was good to sort of be on the other end of it… it was good to hear if there was talk I was going somewhere else that they’d come and say they wanted me to stay and stuff like that, those little things mean a lot.
“I’d kind of made up my mind [last year, to leave] – things weren’t going too good, I was injured, out for 13 weeks and I was thinking the change would be good. Somewhere else for my family would have been good for them too, to experience something different, but this year just speaking to everyone who was saying I was going good and that I could do it later.
“We ended up staying here because I can offer something to the Sharks, and because they’re moving forward and I want to be a part of it.
“I’ve got this year and two more years, and in the back of my mind when I re-signed I was thinking ‘that’s three seasons… I think we’re a good chance of getting a premiership’. That’s up there at the top of the list of things I want to do. Hopefully it’ll happen.”
And hopefully – for both Tupou and the Sharks – the wretched run of bad luck both parties have endured in recent times is coming to an end, too.