For the last ten or so years, Vaai ‘Jason’ Taumalolo has been the pre-eminent forward in the National Rugby League.
He made his debut for the Cowboys in 2010 at the tender age of 17 and in the following decade and change he has forged a legacy that will see him remembered as a legend of the game.
His list of achievements includes winning the 2015 premiership, being named the 2016 Dally M Medallist (the only non-spine player to take out the game’s most prestigious individual award since Gavin Miller in 1989), leading North Queensland to an improbable 2017 grand final appearance, ten caps for his country of birth, New Zealand, and 13 matches for the country of his heritage, Tonga.
This last aspect has been arguably the most impressive and important of his career, his decision to pledge his allegiance to the island kingdom in 2017 seeing a chunk of other prominent players with Tongan heritage do likewise. As a result, the Mate Ma’a missed a spot in the 2017 World Cup final by a contentious (but, let’s be honest, correct) refereeing call, and in 2019 they caused one of the greatest boilovers in international rugby league history by beating the Kangaroos.
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Throughout it all Taumalolo has carried himself with grace and quiet dignity. I mean, his absolute worst off-field misdemeanour was going egging in 2016. I’m not condoning it, but in the long history of criminal acts committed by NRL players, JT and a few of his fellow Cowboys players – including fellow future seven-figure-a-season star Kalyn Ponga – getting fined for buying a few cartons of eggs and lobbing them at cars is at least a little bit funny.
He’s an animal on the field, one of the fiercest metre-eaters in the history of the code, with a 200-metre game just what’s expected by his standards. More than that, he’s a leader of men and a Tongan national treasure – so much so that King Tupou VI gifted him land in his mother’s village, he has received a knighthood and he had the local competition renamed in his honour.
So while it was unprecedented, the Cowboys signing their new JT to a ten-year, $10 million contract in early 2017 was hardly ridiculous. The only real question was whether Taumalolo would still offer value for the club in the final years of the deal.
Surely his insanely physical style would catch up with him as he hit his mid-30s? Taumalolo intimated as much shortly after signing the deal, saying he would “have to change the way I play”.
“The body won’t be able to take as much of a beating as it is right now, and I’ll try and add a pass or two to my game, and offloads I’m still working on, and from that my game will evolve,” Taumalolo told NRL.com in August 2017.
And at the start of last season the Cowboys’ new coach, Todd Payten, decided it was time to force the issue, limiting Taumalolo’s minutes in an attempt to preserve the big man’s body.
“Jase is contracted here for seven years. If we cook him, 65-75 minutes a game, in three to four years, what value are we going to get out of him?” Payten said at the post-match press conference following his side’s Round 1 loss to the Panthers.
Payten also called his pack’s leader out for a lack of effort in defence, saying that while it was a natural consequence of his big minutes and metres in attack, it still set a bad example for the club’s youngsters.
“For anyone to stay on the park in the middle of the field like Jase does, they’re going to cut corners somewhere and it comes in your defensive movements,” Payten said. “Your retreat speed, your line speed, and if we let Jase get away with that, the young forwards that we have in our club think that’s the way we defend.”
It was fair criticism from the coach, and in the months that followed, Taumalolo himself said he had found it “refreshing”.
“Players aren’t going to get better by not being criticised and challenged,” he told Sporting News.
“For someone so high up in the club to criticise me the way he did, I think it can only be good.”
Nevertheless, the media sunk their teeth into Payten’s comments from that first day of his club’s season and refused to let go, meaning for the rest of the year we heard rumblings of Taumalolo’s discontent – perhaps even desire to quit the club.
Of course it would have all gone away pretty quick smart if Taumalolo was out on the field punching out 300-metre efforts, but his 2021 was hampered by injuries, resulting in just 15 matches for the year – his fewest since 2013.
To top it off, over the off-season we’ve been reading stories of Taumalolo possibly refusing to get vaccinated, potentially putting his career at the Cowboys – and maybe even in Australian sport – in jeopardy.
All with the majority of his contract still to be played and paid.
And there are those who actually think, whichever way it shakes out, perhaps Taumalolo departing North Queensland would be mutually beneficial.
When he signed that eye-watering deal, the Cowboys may have been preparing for life after Johnathan Thurston, but the future still looked bright.
Michael Morgan was primed to take over as the club’s dominant half, Te Maire Martin was a promising prospect at five-eighth and Lachlan Coote had healthy competition for the fullback spot from Ponga. Put a reasonable forward pack in front of that spine – and Taumalolo alone makes almost any NRL pack at least half-decent – and you’ve got the ingredients for a team that should make the finals.
But heading into 2022 precisely zero of those spine players remain in Townsville.
Instead Taumalolo is providing go-forward for Tom Dearden, Scott Drinkwater, Chad Townsend, Valentine Holmes and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow – five guys who are scrapping over three spots and fall into the categories of ‘potential’, ‘serviceable’ or ‘over the hill’.
They don’t make Taumalolo a worse player, but there’s an argument that spending a million dollars on a lock doesn’t make sense without a settled, proven spine that can take advantage of the 5000 metres he can make in a year.
Perhaps the 28-year-old making the move to a club in its premiership window, rather than one in a rebuild, would give him a shot at another ring and the Cowboys the necessary cash to sort themselves out (although recent signings suggest that club having more money would be like the mule with a spinning wheel).
All that said, six years is a long time and $6 million is a lot of dosh – more than most make in their entire careers – so don’t expect Taumalolo and the Cowboys to just give up on their union after one unremarkable season.
And it was just unremarkable, it wasn’t even bad.
Let’s say their marriage is counselling. Here’s hoping it works.
One rough year in 12 is understandable and it’s entirely possible that 2021 was just an injury-affected anomaly for Jason Taumalolo. That said, while it would be tempting to say the best-case scenario would be to see Taumalolo return to his devastating best in 2022, averaging 200 metres a game and carrying multiple hapless defenders over the advantage line, Payten is right. Taumalolo needs to change if he’s going to keep offering quality at the age of 34 in 2027.
So the actual best-case scenario may be less game time and fewer metres, with Taumalolo instead finding ways to inject himself that are equally consequential to the outcome of the game but less taxing on his body.
Ideally this is the year Taumalolo evolves his game in a way that means he’s got a realistic eye on leading Tonga to the 2029 World Cup – when he’ll be 36 – cementing his status as an Immortal of the game.
The absolute worst-case would be a flat refusal to get the jab, seeing his career come to an inglorious and ignominious end.
As for the non-COVID scenario, that would be for 2021 to have been a harbinger of things to come rather than a blip on the radar and Taumalolo’s body continuing to break down as his reckless disregard for his own health and wellbeing catches up with him.