Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby League: Star forward unlocks his potential

Jason Taumalolo was labelled the new Sonny Bill Williams early in his NRL career and, as Michael Burgess writes, he has now proven his potential in a breakthrough season.
Jason Taumalolo was a key figure in New Zealand's narrow win over England. Photo / Getty Images
Jason Taumalolo was a key figure in New Zealand's narrow win over England. Photo / Getty Images

Ask Jason Taumalolo about the main catalyst behind his extraordinary 2016 season, and the answer could be something straight out of an Anthony Robbins convention.

Sure, the Kiwis lock forward will talk about training harder, credit the contribution of team-mates and point to the fact he was lucky with injuries.

Those are all factors but the most important one was a lot simpler; Taumalolo was determined to find himself as a player, to unlock the power within.

The 23-year-old, who lines up against the Kangaroos this morning (NZT), went from great to "a great" this year, from being a highly-rated member of the Cowboys forward pack to one of the elite players in the sport. The four syllables of "Tau-ma-lo-lo" even became a regular feature of the commentators' calls every weekend. And it all started with a promise to himself, to finally be the best he could be.

"Nothing else changed too much, it all just came down to myself," says Taumalolo ahead of this morning's test. "It was all in my head. I knew I could be capable of becoming a better player and that is what a lot of people talked about: will I eventually live up to the potential I had?

"That is something no one else could do but myself. I needed to have that mentality that I wanted to go out and prove a point this year and hopefully I did that."

Taumalolo was always tipped for big things. The former Papakura Sea Eagle was spotted by the Cowboys as a 13-year-old and signed a deal in a Townsville pizza parlour that same night.

After moving to Australia, Taumalolo became just the third 15-year-old behind Justin Hodges and Will Hopoate to make the Australian schoolboys' team.

The hype advanced in 2010, when he made his NRL debut at 17, the youngest in Cowboys history, and was touted as the next Sonny Bill Williams.

Taumalolo struggled with the label. He took time to develop and as recently as 2013 spent part of the season in the Queensland Cup.

The 2014 Four Nations was his international breakthrough, and the next year, he was one of the most impressive forwards in the NRL, a key part of North Queensland's historic premiership win.

This season, he has lifted to a new stratosphere, becoming probably the best power forward in the game.

He averaged a remarkable 166m per match, surpassing the 200m mark seven times.

Taumalolo also had 12 line breaks - more than double any of his previous seasons - and a career-high 22 tackles per match.

His impact was epitomised by the epic Cowboys-Broncos semifinal, which stretched on for almost 90 minutes. Taumalolo was outstanding in the second half of that match, continually scattering Brisbane defenders, and his charges eventually broke the Broncos' resolve.

"My second stint coming back on towards the end of games have been the most important times for me this season," he says. "When the games are on the line, they are the moments I want to be a part of. That is what defines me as a player; trying to be in those tough moments and changing the game around. I've been successful sometimes, others I haven't."

His feats were recognised, as he picked up the Players' Player of the Year award and the joint Dally M (shared with Cooper Cronk). The latter was particularly meritorious, as he was the first forward in a decade to win, and just the second Kiwi behind Gary Freeman in 2002. History shows it takes a special effort for the men in the pack to be noticed by the Dally M judges, but Taumalolo couldn't be ignored.

"Every week, I left the field knowing I had done my best," he says. "I never leave the field without any doubts. That is what changed me and made me more consistent throughout the year. I'm always trying to find that extra effort, not only to be there because I am needed, but to be there in case I am needed."

The seeds of Taumalolo's annus mirabilis were sown in pre-season, when the Cowboys trained in the tropical north.

"I've been put in some dark places, especially in pre-season - but that's what pre-seasons are for," he explains. "The times where the body just didn't want to go and you have nothing left, that is what makes players. That happened to me a couple of times in pre-season and you want to bring that into games, where you can't go any further but you eventually find something deep down to get over the line, even in the dying moments of games."

That spirit was epitomised in Huddersfield last week against England, as Taumalolo played all but five minutes of the match. He looked out on his feet for much of the final quarter, but lifted in the last few minutes with some strong charges and the Kiwis held on for an important 17-16 win.

It hasn't been all plain sailing for Taumalolo this year, after being caught up in a car-egging incident in Townsville on the eve of the finals. There were four other Cowboys involved, but Taumalolo was the most senior of the quintet in the episode.

"It was a bit of a wake-up call," he says. "It wasn't the smartest or brightest idea that I came up with. Everyone has their dark times and it wasn't my finest hour. I guess I learned about consequences the hard way and what it means to be a professional athlete."

Taumalolo has five full NRL seasons behind him but could play for another decade, after his precocious start. He is already tipped to become the highest paid forward (and maybe player) in the game when the next salary cap comes into force in 2018.

"I've made it a long way in my career but there's still a long way to go," he says. "I was one of the lucky ones to be picked up at such a young age. It's only going to get better from here."

Autex - Proud sponsors of New Zealand rugby league since 1981.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 08 Dec 2016 21:22:50 Processing Time: 884ms