Saints scrum-half Tupai admits his shock after 'surreal' Champions Cup experience

Connor Tupai was sat in a team meeting when his face flashed up on the PowerPoint presentation.

By Tom Vickers
Thursday, 19th December 2019, 7:00 am
Connor Tupai in action at the Aviva Stadium
Connor Tupai in action at the Aviva Stadium

"My stomach dropped, I went all quiet, my hands went sweaty and I just couldn't quite believe I was getting my first start in such a big game," said Tupai, who was in the first 15 for the Champions Cup clash with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday.

"From the moment I was named in the team, it was honestly pretty surreal.

"It was a big shock to me because I wasn't previously told I was in the team.

Connor Tupai came off the bench against Leinster at the Gardens a couple of weeks ago

"They put a PowerPoint up in the team room and my face was on the board, which was a massive surprise.

"Boydy (Saints boss Chris Boyd) never tells me if I'm in the team or on the bench - he keeps it as a surprise.

"They name the team in order of front row, second row, back row and then it comes to the midfielders and what not and it just came up - my face was there.

"I was playing alongside Dan Biggar and it was pretty crazy for me.

"But then I didn't really have any time to think about it.

"It was straight into training, straight into next job and when it sunk in was when we got off the plane in Dublin, went to the Aviva Stadium for team run and I walked into this massive stadium with all the boys.

"That's when all the nerves came, the butterflies turned up and I couldn't quite believe where I was at, to be honest.

"I felt like I was about to play against Ireland in an international game.

"Everyone was setting up with Leinster flags everywhere and that's when it kicked in that, wow, I was actually playing in a big game.

"It was exciting."

If Tupai, who only turned 20 earlier this month, was nervous, he didn't let it show on the big stage.

It was not an easy night for Saints, who suffered a 50-21 defeat, but Tupai came out of the game with credit.

And he has paid tribute to the way his team-mates, in particular Biggar, helped him before and during the match.

"It was my first time playing alongside Dan Biggar and he was awesome the whole time," said Tupai, who had come off the bench during the home game against Leinster on the previous weekend.

"Every training session he got behind me and he said 'Toops, everyone makes mistakes, what you need to do is just play your game, keep it simple, do the things you do well and you'll have a good game'.

"Before the game, he said to me in front of the team 'we're all behind you, Toops - just go out there and enjoy it'.

"That's what stuck for me, someone like Dan Biggar telling me to enjoy it, to do the simple things well and to focus on what I do best.

"It was just nice to have the team behind me in such a big game.

"It put me at ease, made me enjoy it and made me have fun out there on the pitch."

Tupai has certainly had plenty of good role models at Saints, especially in his position.

"I'm still a student of the game," said the former Northampton School for Boys pupil.

"It's my second proper year of playing scrum-half and I've obviously got Cobus to learn from, Alex Mitchell, who I think is world class and will play for England soon, and we've got the new guy, Tayls (Henry Taylor), who has come from Sarries and has shared a lot of knowledge with me.

"But I've also been learning from Paul Grayson, who comes in and does kicking with me twice a week.

"He's taught me a lot, not just kicking but he also knows how to play the game and he's coached me at school level.

"And when I was at Under-17 and Under-18 level he coached me then as well.

"He took us at NSB to the final of the Vase and the semis of the NatWest competition so he's shared a lot with me as well."

Tupai has grown up around rugby, with his dad, Paul, having enjoyed a 25-year stay in the professional arena.

Paul played for Saints during a 1,000-game career.

And when asked what he has learned from his dad, Connor said: "It's more about off-the-field stuff in terms of learning from others, learning from the more experienced boys, he's told me to work hard, enjoy rugby and just be myself.

"He's never told me how to play the game, what to do and how to do it.

"He's not the pushy dad that watches games with me, he's more about enjoyment and doing what I do and what I love.

"He supports me through everything."

Connor grew up watching Paul play at Franklin's Gardens.

"I remember being in box eight here at the Gardens and not even watching the game," Connor said.

"I would just run around the corridors with James Grayson, kicking a ball around, getting told off in the corridor and knocking photos off the wall.

"Then when I grew up a little bit I used to watch him through the window.

"From that, it's been Bedford Blues and I've seen him do it all, I've seen how many red cards and yellow cards he's got, I've seen his fights, I've seen him win big games, lose big games - I've sort of lived his whole career over here with him.

"From being tea boy, ball boy - I've been his No.1 supporter I guess."

Connor and fly-half James Grayson have gone from kicking the ball around the corridors of the Gardens to kicking it around the field, regularly teaming up for the Wanderers.

"I've known James Grayson since I was about five or six," Connor explained.

"We used to run around the changing room in Wanderers games and I've known him since I first got here.

"We did go to the same school but he was a few years older than me so we didn't really hang out until I got to Saints.

"I joined the club when I was about 13 or 14 and then I first played with him at about 16 or 17 and I played up a year and he played down a year.

"I played 10 sometimes and he played 10 and I would come off the bench for him.

"I played a bit of nine and I was a bit everywhere so that's when we first kicked off our proper relationship."

The next task for Tupai Jnr is a tricky trip to Sale Sharks on Saturday.

Saints are desperate to bounce back from a tough couple of weeks in Europe as they look to cement their place at the top of the Gallagher Premiership table.

And Tupai said: "On Monday in our meetings, we parked Leinster.

"We're obviously disappointed with the performance and result but we took some good things out of it, we took some things we need to learn for this week and then we said let's move back to the Prem, where we're sitting top.

"We want to keep that top spot.

"We know Sale are a hard team and we're moving forward to that."