By STEVE MASCORD
JASON Taumalolo is no expert on the ‘pathways’ paper that earned former NRL head of strategy Shane Richardson a little bit of derision and almost no thanks.
The uber-destructive North Queensland and New Zealand back rower doesn’t know how the document was going to achieve its aim of keeping youngsters at home with their families for longer.
But as he talks to A-List, perched on a plastic chair at a BBQ table outside the premiers’ training facility at suburban Kirwan, the 113 kg Taumalolo makes it abundantly clear what changing countries to be a professional sportsman at the age of 12 does to someone.
He wants to tell me even before I ask a question. At the age of just 22, Jason Taumalolo was burnt out. He wasn’t sure he wanted to play rugby league for a living anymore.
“Last year, the form I was in, I wouldn’t say it was the best footy, what I think I would be playing,” the Auckland-born giant says, not long after sitting down.
“I’ve had issues … I wasn’t eating right. I was turning up late to a few meetings. I wasn’t fully committed to what the team wanted.
“That happens, I guess, to everyone at some point – especially when you’re working. You sometimes think is being here what you want to do?
“Coming from New Zealand at a young age and moving here, not because of anything else but football, it was pretty scary thinking about it.
“It’s one of those jobs where everyone thinks you’re living the life and stuff. They don’t fully know what you have to do and the sacrifices you have to make to get there.
“I knew everyone was on the same page but me. I obviously knew I was letting the team down.”
You don’t hear from Taumalolo anywhere near as much as you should given his status in the game. There could be any number of reasons for this; the presence of one J Thurston sucking all the light away from other Cowboys is likely one of them.
But be honest: how many of you expected to read the words “quietly spoken” in this story?
Jason Taumalolo is NOT quietly spoken. Scarcely into his third decade on Earth, he has already defied the great Mal Meninga – and his own parents – to pledge his allegiance to a country from whence rugby league stole him when he should have just have been still kicking a ball around for fun.
A psychologist might say that choosing New Zealand (he can’t remember more than one or two of his Auckland school mates) was a way of reclaiming his childhood and sense of identity. But just making that choice himself, exercising some self-determination, also led to him questioning everything else.
“When I spoke to Mal Meninga it was a pinch-myself moment,” he recalls of the Maroons’ attempts to poach a Kiwi who qualified for them with one year to spare.
“I’m talking to one of the immortals of rugby league. That was a surreal moment.
“After we had that talk, how he wanted me to pledge my allegiance to Queensland, right then and there I was in awe of who he was and what he wanted. Obviously my parents were for me playing for Queensland.
“But I made up my mind when I was young, playing for the Australian Schoolboys team. I didn’t feel comfortable being in the green and gold jersey.
“When I spoke to Stephen Kearney and a few of the other New Zealand officials, I was quite relieved that all that pressure was over.”
Taumalolo has some great yarns to tell – like how he came to be called Jason despite being born Vaai.
“When I got enrolled in primary school my name was Vaai, what you seen in the passport. The first week in primary school, the teacher kept saying my name wrong and then she ended up just calling me Jason. Then I took my report card home and it said Jason and my mum said ‘ah, who’s Jason?’ And that’s how it happened. Haha.”
And about how James Tamou – the original 21st century Kiwi turned Aussie superstar – helped him to make the exact opposite decision.
“He was saying how much he loved (Origin). He told me ‘look ahead in 10 years. Look at both paths. Tell me which one you’d be more regretful in picking’. If I’d played for Australia, I’d probably regret it. I didn’t want that.”
Have you ever heard a 22-year-old talk about leaving a legacy? This is what Jason – sorry, Vaai – says when I ask him how he refocused after his period of doubt last year.
“When I was a junior in New Zealand I used to go watch the Warriors games, watched the likes of Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones and even Brent Webb back then. I didn’t even know he’s Australian.
“That was the path I saw. I wanted to leave a legacy as one of the greatest players to play for New Zealand.”
Heady stuff from someone you may have never even heard speak. But if there’s one thing to take out of this chat in steamy Thuringowa, it’s that kids should not have to change countries, states or even cities for football before they are even in their teens.
“It’s the last thing you would expect from a 12, 13 year old to be coming over here just for football,” he says. “Mum and dad were big on me trying to be an A-plus student at New Zealand. Like every good student, when they play a sport and become good at it, they don’t really concentrate that much on school work.
“The last thing a 12-year-old or 13-year-old needs if he’s playing good footy is to put pressure on them.
“There was pressure on me and a lot of wraps. I couldn’t cope, especially at a young age. I understand why the NRL would put a rule like that to protect those kids.
“I’ve seen players come here at a young age. I’ve played Australian 15s, made rep teams with them, they get that rap where they talk them up as the next big thing.
“I look at them now and they’re not even playing NRL. Some of them don’t even have jobs.
“I guess I was one of the luckier ones. I still felt the pressure of trying to live up to the standards that everyone put on me.
“It was a pretty tough period for me. I could tell during that period that I wasn’t playing my best footy either. Some of that led to be being dropped to Q Cup and stuff. I was in and out of first grade.
“The biggest example right now would be young Kalyn Ponga here at the Cowboys, who’s getting raps. I’ve seen him play. He’s a great player. For his young age, not many times have I seen a fullback play like that. I think the last time I saw someone play that kind of footy, pretty much carve every team, was … I remember playing against James Roberts, under 15s. He was playing for NSW, I was playing for Queensland and he was running rings around us like there was no tomorrow. I’d never seen someone single-handedly beat a team.
“To see a kid like Kalyn Ponga come along, and everyone put the pressure on him, I just hope he has the right head on his shoulders and the best support he can (get), mainly from his parents. I’d like to see him one day become one of the greatest players to play NRL.
“All these young kids, they should probably stay home, you know? And develop more as a person.”
We forget they’re people. And in the case of Jason ‘Vaai’ Taumalolo, pretty damn impressive people.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK