Quinn Tupaea's selection into the first All Blacks squad of 2021 may have surprised him, but two of his Chiefs teammates could see it coming well in advance.
The 22-year-old midfielder is one of four newcomers in coach Ian Foster's 36-man squad, which will be used for tests against Tonga and Fiji next month, signifying his rapid rise in 2021.
While with plenty of promise attached to his youthful player profile, the ultra physical Tupaea was still seen as a work in progress at the conclusion of last year's Super Rugby season. That promise blossomed in 2021 as he became a key component in the Chiefs' midfield alongside Anton Lienert-Brown for the most part, and Alex Nankivell on occasion.
It's the latest chapter in the exciting young career of a player who's been tipped for the rugby's pinnacle since bursting onto the scene with Waikato in 2018.
Fellow Chief and prop Angus Ta'avao says the first time he saw Tupaea play, he knew he was special.
"From when he first came in as a young player I could see the talent in him, and someone asked me years ago who do you reckon the next Chiefs All Black is going to be and that was the name I threw in there. He's physical, I feel like this year he took a whole step up. Realised how strong he was and his confidence just grew and had a little bit of an injury which took him out for a little bit but came straight back.
"I would love to have been in that Māori All Blacks team room when he was named."
Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie shares similar thoughts, adding he has a "great relationship" with Tupaea.
"The day he walked in the door at the Chiefs you knew he was going to be a special talent. He's a big boy, he's young, he works real hard, he's not a guy who relies on his natural talent which he's got plenty of, he just works the house down all the time.
"Even just hearing that he got his name read out gives you goosebumps yourself."
Tupaea, standing at 1.86 metres and weighing 96 kilograms, will bring a rigorous force to the 12 jumper that has not been seen in an All Blacks side since the days of Ma'a Nonu.
Recent injuries to Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and David Havili mean the young back is in line for a test rugby blooding sooner rather than later. Ta'avao knows Tupaea has the all-round skillset to back-up his selection.
"What he brings … his carry, on defence, his sharing game, his passing game has come a long way. I'm just excited to see him come into this environment and learn from some of the best in the business," Ta'avao says.
Tupaea himself said it was a shock to be selected in the All Blacks, and he didn't know whether to cry or yell out in jubilation. He says it's a dream come true.
"Always wanted to be an All Black. Started really thinking about it when I was at high school, maybe year 12 or 13 when I was playing first XV," he says. "Haka in front of the TV before the games is always what me and my brother used to do. It'll be awesome if I debuted to do the haka, sing the national anthem."
When he does take the pitch, Tupaea will likely partner one of Rieko Ioane, Braydon Ennor or should he return to full health swiftly, Lienert-Brown in the midfield. The latter of the three could be the most logical option should the puzzle pieces fit.
Tupaea says Lienert-Brown has been a huge part of his development, and takes a lot of pressure off him.
"Just allows me to play my game, and definitely in All Blacks camp I'll be picking his brain again. Seeing what it's like – he's been there for a while."