He might not win best and fairest, but Jason Taumalolo is already the biggest star of the rugby league world cup.
The marauding Cowboys forward is no stranger to producing defining moments, but even by his lofty standards Taumalolo’s ‘defection’ from the Kiwis was a remarkable effort. We’re still a couple of weeks away from the first ball being stripped when the ref isn’t looking and Big JT has already redefined the tournament’s landscape.
That’s bloody awesome.
It a classic case of there seldom being much gain without pain, Taumalolo’s rapier thrust to New Zealand rugby league’s testicles most certainly tickled when it was first delivered. Truth be told it still stings a little even now.
But that discomfort is outweighed by the fact that international rugby league is now well and truly more than a barely noteworthy game of 2.5 contenders.
The November 4 pool match between the Kiwis and Tonga just became appointment viewing. That’s a dead-set first for a rugby league world cup.
Tonga’s star-studded line-up features a thrilling backline and a no longer underpowered forward pack thanks to Taumalolo and fellow defectors Manu Ma’u and Andrew Fifita, the latter of whom eclipsed even Taumalolo’s stage management by waiting until two days after he was named in Australia’s squad to jump ship.
Throw in the likes of Ukuma Tai, Sio Siua Taukieaho, Sika Manu, Sam Moa and Siliva Havilii and Tonga have a forward pack to contend with. If anything, the backline featuring Manu Vatuvei, Konrad Hurrell, Will Hopoate, Michael Jennings, David Fusitua and Daniel Tupou is even more impressive than the pack.
Tonga are the real deal. And the Kiwis will be really pissed off.
The November 4 pool match between the Kiwis and Tonga in Hamilton just became appointment viewing. That’s a dead-set first for a rugby league world cup, and one can only hope it’s the start of something rather than the end.
The whinging – mainly from reporters and media types hell bent on pointing out that the NZRL’s failings remain numerous – has been unseemly. Calls for change to the eligibility rules are short-sighted and self-centred.
So what if there’s a ring of truth to the claims (denied by Taumalolo) that he and some of his fellow ship jumpers are pissed off with the way the NZRL dealt with the Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor fiasco?
Firstly, it’s highly unlikely that would be the only – let alone the primary reason – a player would switch their national allegiance (a wild stab in the dark is that Tauamalolo actually wants to play for the country of his heritage alongside his fellow Tongans). And secondly, who cares? The reasons are irrelevant.
This isn’t an aberration. What we have witnessed is the law of intended consequences in action. International rugby league’s eligibility rules were altered to help strengthen the second-tier nations and ensure the best players aren’t excluded from the world cup. And that is exactly what has happened.
All going to plan, the likes of Tonga might even be able to shed the unwelcome descriptor ‘second tier’ and just become league nations. And the likes of the Kiwis and Kangaroos might be able to play regular meaningful matches against countries other than each other.
Wouldn’t that be something?
The oft trotted out line that sports entities operate in a crowded marketplace was never more evident than the weekend just been.
A sample of the live sports offerings fans had to choose from between Friday night and Sunday included:
– An All Whites match against Japan
– An All Blacks test match
– A Silver Ferns test match
– 4000 Mitre Ten Cup matches
– Major League baseball’s playoffs
– The Breakers’ season debut
– The Wellington Phoenix’s season debut (in which they seemingly fielded an 11-year-old goalkeeper)
– The Japan Grand Prix
The latter four of those events occurred simultaneously on Sunday afternoon. Sports fans aren’t spoiled for choice, they’re crushed by it.
On Friday, a pundit on sports radio implored spectators to get along to the Breakers and Phoenix matches because the clubs are owned by great people who tip copious amounts of cash into them and operated by tireless staff who toil thanklessly in the background.
That’s a lovely sentiment – but an utterly uncompelling reason to attend a sports match. Fandom doesn’t work like that. The only people who attend matches out of a sense of obligation are Warriors season ticket holders who can’t even get a 50 per cent rebate via Trademe after round 4. The rest of us need to be genuinely enthused and intrigued about an outcome to even consider shifting our butts off the couch.
The last thing a Kiwis team with its back to wall needs at this world cup is a bunch of players who wished they were somewhere else.
Which brings us back to Jason Taumalolo and the magnificent Tongan Rebellion he has most likely been unwittingly installed as leading.
Of all the things that could have gone wrong for the Kiwis as they attempt to recover from the deep low that has followed an historic high, the second worst was losing the world’s best forward in controversial circumstances to a Kingdom that numbers only 99,000 subjects more than voted for the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party.
The worst thing that could have happened was that Taumalolo and his mates opted to stay in the Kiwis fold. Because the last thing a Kiwis team with its back to wall needs at this world cup is a bunch of players who wished they were somewhere else.
Coach David Kidwell was at pains to make that point at his latest public disembowelment, which doubled as the Kiwis’ squad naming.
“The key is the WE”, a highly pissed off Kidwell asserted.
It was a corny phrase, he admitted, but the point stood. When it comes to crunch, an Elijah Taylor playing with tears in his eyes because he’s so bloody honoured to be playing for his country is worth a dozen disinterested Taumalolos.
Kidwell may be rocking a (metaphorical) colostomy bag these days but he’s still the dude who put Willie Mason on his arse for dissing the haka. He’ll be hurting – and so too will a bunch of his players.
They will deny it, but there are now scores on both sides that must be settled.
Both teams will have circled November 4 on the calendar. And so too will every rugby league fan in this country. The rugby league world cup has a lot to thank Jason Taumalolo for.