What compels a soldier to stand and fight in the face of danger? To put the welfare of others before their own? The worthy possible answers are complex and many in number but perhaps one of those answers lies in the remarkable story of Criff Tupou.
On a clear August evening last year, when Tupou galloped out onto Ballymore for Brisbane City, for their round one clash against Perth Spirit in the 2015 NRC Championship. No one to run out on that field that evening, perhaps appreciated the moment more than the former rifleman of the Tongan marines.
The occasion that literally would have seemed a world away a few years before, well and truly marked the triumphant end to a long winding, 10 year odyssey to first class rugby for the older brother of the Tongan Thor, Taniela Tupou.
Criff’s journey begins with a family tragedy in 2006 with the sudden death of his father Malakai. With only one real option for the then fresh faced 16 yeard old, Tupou placed all future aspirations aside and followed his father’s footsteps into the Tongan marines. Effectively, the young Tupou was signing up to serve his country to also serve and provide for his family.
“After my father passed away, supporting my poor little family in Tonga any way I could, was one of the main reasons I pushed so hard to join the marines.”
At 16 years old, Tupou was so young in fact, that his mother Loisi was required to attend his official swearing in ceremony to even be allowed join the army.
Many tumultuous assignments lay in wait for Tupou while he was in the army, locally in Tonga when he was involved in the stabilizing efforts during the time of the infamous Tonga riots, when the army was called in to restore order to the country.
Tupou would see time abroad when he was sent to Iraq via Baghdad as part of the Peacekeeping Iraq Freedom Operation unit to assist in the efforts in the Middle East. Speaking of his various experiences, the former soldier recalls the Tonga Riots vividly;
“The entire island was covered in thick black smoke, and seeing the destruction that resembled something like the Middle East was both very sad and something I’ll never forget.”
After leaving the army in 2011 and moving to Australia, Tupou would play some part time park football to pass his time whilst he was working in the mines in Queensland, still continuing to support his family in Tonga and now his new wife and child.
It was during this time Tupou realised the deep desire that remained within, about how far he could take his rugby talents if an opportunity presented itself.
As fate would have it, a freak change in the family’s fortunes brought about partly by the sensational online discovery of younger brother Taniela, that instantly went viral and eventually saw him sign with the Queensland Reds.
This required Criff to move to Brisbane to support and help his brother acclimatise, to feel comfortable and confident in his first year out of highschool amidst the overwhelming whirlwind attention his discovery brought about with it.
It was at this time, Tupou decided that if there was ever a time to also chase his dreams this was the elusive opportunity he was waiting for.
Arriving at the Brothers rugby club very much in the shadow of his younger brother, mostly due to not having come through any recognised private school pathway, not having completed even one full year in Grades, let alone Premier rugby, Criff got to work to see just where he could take his game with the “luxury” of being able to train week in week out for the first time.
“It was hard at first, not knowing anybody and having to prove myself.”
“Those values I learned in the army like discipline, teamwork and mental toughness really helped me a lot during those difficult times.”
Amazingly, after practically beginning from scratch and against all the odds, Tupou earned his cherished premier grade jersey with the Brothers team, fulfilling another goal to play alongside his brother. Criff would not relinquish that jersey for the rest of the year.
Tupou would go onto make a valuable contribution to his team through the year, that went agonisingly short of turning out in the Queensland Premier Rugby grand final, succumbing to eventual premiers Souths. Tupou’s breakout year does not end here however.
The big number 8’s crowning moment would come when he was named in the 2015 Brisbane City squad, the home of the defending NRC champions and turned an amazing year to a truly unprecedented and remarkable one.
The golden Brisbane City jersey, represented a culmination of a decade long journey to realize his rugby talent and an opportunity to the world of possibilities that now lie ahead for Tupou that he has most importantly earned his own right.
Asked to reflect on his journey and pinpoint the reason for his rise, the powerful number 8 gives a strikingly philosophical answer true to his strong Christian beliefs and roots.
“Everything I’ve done, LOVE has been the constant.”
Love for the family, love for the country, love for the Godly gifts he was tasked to unearth, and the love of the game.
Perhaps there lies the answer to our aforementioned conundrum,
what compels the soldier? The same thing that compelled Criff
10 years ago when the hour required the man within to come forward and answer his call,
Let that also compel us to appreciate the ANZACs as well as all service men and service women everywhere, who have served or are serving their countries ready to make the ultimate sacrifice, to provide us with the freedom we enjoy today.
Lest we forget.
By James Kite.