League: One step ahead of hungry rookies

By Steve Deane

Elijah Taylor knows he has to work hard to keep his spot in the team.Picture / Getty Images
Elijah Taylor knows he has to work hard to keep his spot in the team.Picture / Getty Images

Fear drives Elijah Taylor.

He's not scared of the gorillas who rumble his way each weekend on the NRL's fields. Dropping the game's best and biggest in their tracks is the Hawera-born 22-year-old's job, and he's pretty darn good at it.

No, it's the players on his own team who Taylor is scared of, and those waiting in the wings for their shot at the big time. Slip up, he tells himself every day, and he'll be gone. Never give a sucker an even break is too harsh a motto for the scrupulously mannered Taylor, but he sure doesn't take his eye off the ball.

It's an attitude that has seen him thrive in the NRL since debuting against the Sharks in Taupo last season. He hit the ground running at Owen Delany Park and never stopped.

Among the host of painfully fresh Warriors faces Taylor is the closest to casting off those youthful ways. Where many of his contemporaries have followed the traditional boom-bust-second wind pattern, Taylor has barely paused to take a breath.

This is not to overly inflate the young man's tyres. He's human, he makes mistakes, he has his ups and downs. But in comparison with many of the emerging stars at the Warriors, his peaks and troughs are more like ripples.

"Usually you start wondering when the dip is going to come, but he's going upwards," former coach Ivan Cleary said of Taylor after a breakout performance on the Gold Coast last year. "He's one of those kids that you look at and think, 'I can't actually see him slowing down at the moment."'

Taylor still hasn't slowed down. Won't slow down. Knows he can't afford to.

"It's a pressure environment," Taylor says. "I'm really hard on myself. I can never get comfortable in first grade. Ivan told me don't get comfortable because you are only ever as good as your last performance. That really stuck in my head."

As well as the likes of fellow NRL squad members Ukuma Ta'ai and Steve Rapira, Taylor is wary of the endless well of talent bubbling up from below - players such as last week's debutant Sebastine Ikahihifo and highly touted Juniors captain John Palavi.

"They are all going to come and they are all going to get their shot ... I can't give the coach an excuse to drop me."

That type of desperation hasn't always appeared widespread this season. The Warriors have been frequently brilliant, but just as often failed to produce the mental and physical fortitude needed to turn talent into victories. They've played with a painful naivete, been agonising to watch. The over-reliance on rookies has been an issue.

Taylor may be keeping his head above water, but he is the exception that proves the rule. The likes of Konrad Hurrell and Shaun Johnson have blown hot and cold, while others such as Glen Fisiiahi and Omar Slaimankhel have succumbed quickly to the rigours of the top grade.

Pain, fatigue and pressure all come to bear at some point. Finding the mental toughness to deal with it is the biggest challenge, says Taylor.

"It is an experience thing. This whole season we have been learning lessons, trying to hold on to leads and trying to be mentally tough.

"We've learned all the lessons we can, honestly. We are not going to change it if we are not prepared to make sacrifices. We have just got to work harder."

Last year the team went through lows before rebounding to make the grand final. But last year was different. With the likes of Lance Hohaia, Aaron Heremaia and Micheal Luck in the ranks, there were shoulders carrying wise heads to lean on.

"When times got tough we turned to them to guide us through," Taylor said.

"This year has been different. There are not as many experienced guys but there has been a lot of enthusiasm from the younger guys."

He is far from alone. After the final whistle against Manly, Taylor appeared totally shattered. He believed the season was over. He's perked up since learning the team is not dead yet, and is ready to throw himself into the challenge of beating the Cronulla Sharks to keep the dream alive.

It is just a dream, though. The Warriors won't win the NRL this season.

They're a long shot just to squeak into the top eight.

But they will win it soon, probably within the next three years. When they do, some - but not all - of the players who have debuted in the last two seasons will be in the ranks. The NRL weeds out the weak, but it won't claim Taylor.

He won't let it.

Warriors v Sharks Mt Smart Stadium, 2pm tomorrow

Warriors: Kevin Locke, Bill Tupou, Ben Henry, Lewis Brown, Manu Vatuvei (c), James Maloney
Shaun Johnson, Russell Packer, Nathan Friend, Ben Matulino, Feleti Mateo,
Elijah Taylor, S. Ikahihifo.

Interchange: Carlos Tuimavave, Sione Lousi, Jacob Lillyman, Steve Rapira, Ukuma Ta'ai.

Sharks: Matthew Wright, John Williams, Ricky Leutele, Colin Best, Nathan Stapleton,
Todd Carney, Jeff Robson, Mark Taufua, Isaac de Gois, Ben Ross, Jeremy Smith,
Anthony Tupou, Paul Gallen.

Interchange: Andrew Fifita, Tyson Frizell, John Morris, Jon Green, Sam Tagataese.

- NZ Herald

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