Vaea Fifita’s reign as the most outstanding Kiwi-Tongan athlete on display over the weekend lasted less than 24 hours.
Fifita’s rousing display against Argentina in his first start in an All Blacks test match was a head-turner all right. But it wasn’t a patch on Jason Taumalolo’s rampaging demolition of the Cronulla Sharks on Sunday night.
Stricken by off-season defections and injuries to key players such as Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, the North Queensland Cowboys would have had every right to roll over and play dead mid-way through 2017.
Instead they clung on tenaciously, winning just enough matches to sneak into the finals when the Bulldogs upset the Dragons in the final match of the regular season.
That tenacity and fortitude was on display again Sunday night when the Cowboys came back from 0-8 down to defeat the reigning premier Sharks in extra time.
It wouldn’t have happened without the beastly efforts of the gigantic Taumalolo. The Kiwis lock beat five defenders – dragging four of them over the line (including two props) – to score a try that no other human on the planet would have.
“Normally with five players around I would give up there, but it’s a finals game so you’ve got to give it a bit extra,” Taumalolo shrugged afterwards.
And therein lies the beating heart of the NRL; the essence of what makes it the most consistently captivating annual club rugby competition on the planet. Like every sports league, there is plenty of dross served up during the regular season. But finals footy never lets us down. When teams and players have their season on the line, the intensity rises exponentially. The season builds to a crescendo, hearts are broken and champions are made.
The NRL is pretty much the inverse of Super Rugby, which starts out spankingly in the late summer sun, slowly descends into the pits of winter and splutters to a finish in another time zone.
With the NRL, as bad as things get, there’s always the promise of a return to the big dance next year. There’s always the hope that your club is about to unearth the next Taumalolo, and achieve the impossible.
Michael Ennis, the feisty hooker turned pundit who last year was a member of the champion Sharks, described Taumalolo’s display Sunday as the greatest performance he’d seen from the 24-year-old Aucklander. Putting that in context, Taumalolo last year became the first ball-running forward in 28 years to win the Dally M Medal for the game’s best and most consistent player.
The Cowboys rewarded him with an unprecedent, gob-smacking 10-year contract extension. The get-out clauses, potential upgrades and real cost of that contract aren’t known, but it sure looks pretty good business right now. Primarily, it will have been designed to keep jealous suitors from pounding on the door of the game’s best forward.
Front of that queue has long been the Warriors. In 2015, they entered extended negotiations with Taumalolo only to be rebuffed at the 11th hour. The club ended up splashing the massive lump of cash earmarked for Taumalolo on its secondary target – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – instead.
Try as he might, Tuivasa-Sheck hasn’t had the same impact on the game as the indestructible, indefatigable Tuamalolo over the last two years.
Sunday’s victory wasn’t all down to Taumalolo, though. Michael Morgan, the stand-in for and heir apparent to Thurston, may well be Australia’s stand-off come the world cup. He’s no mug. His winning extra time field goal was the first of his career but it clearly won’t be the last.
The Cowboys also have an explosive hooker in Jake Granville and a sublime finisher in Kyle Feldt. But, as courageous as they are, they have too many holes in their squad. Their dream will end this Saturday in Sydney when they meet the grand final-bound Eels.
The Sharks’ shock exit merely confirmed what everyone already knows: defending the NRL title is impossible. No team has managed a repeat since the competition began in 1998. Only the Broncos, who triumphed in 2000 and 2006, have legitimately won two titles in the same decade (Melbourne’s 2007 and 2009 titles were stripped for salary cap cheating). In the last seven years there have been seven different champions.
There are no dynasties in the NRL. There are but fleeting moments, and the epic battles to seize them than unfold every September. It’s the time of year that adds some substance to league’s otherwise bombastic claim to be the greatest game of all.
Right now, Jason Taumalolo is the greatest player in the greatest game.