#KiwiNRL Finals Musings: Jason Taumalolo's Still Got A Nek Level

Peace.

Peace.

Finals footy. What is it about Finals footy that makes it such a hypebeast? Reflecting on a  weekend of righteous footy, I feel exactly how I hope to feel as we slide from the regular season into Finals footy; bliss, footy bliss. Finals footy features a notable rise in intensity, which doesn't necessarily result in a greater execution of skill, perhaps the opposite. 

This is because teams place a greater emphasis on their line speed for example, or something so basic as running harder than you have all season or harder than the opposition is. Ideally this would come with players not making mistakes, no dropping the pill as cheeky errors can be detrimental with such high stakes. Defences are up your face though, there's always a sneaky hand on the ball in the tackle ready to make it look as though you lost control and your desperation to earn a quick play-the-ball comes up against the defences desperation to slow your play-the-ball down. It's all amplified and when that intensity, effort and desire is sprinkled on top of the best teams doing their rugby league thing, just bliss.

In my preview to this weekend's action, I noted that if the Cowboys were to beat the Sharks, they would need Jason Taumalolo to take his game to a nek level. No Jonathan Thurston, no Matt Scott and we can't overlook the absence of James Tamou as well - Taumalolo did the MVP double (Dally M/Player's Champ) last year with those three helping him out. This is Michael Morgan's team and it's been lovely to watch Morgan take control without Thurston, although everything starts with Taumalolo and well, the Cowboys won.

South Auckland's Rhino may not have gone to the sort of nek level that I thought he would have to. The nek level involves offloads, plural and you can only imagine how dominant Taumalolo is/can be when he's averaging 10m/carry (at least) and offloading multiple times in a game. Taumalolo only had a single offload against the Sharks and that's not terrible considering his Rhino performance, what's scary is that the nek level is realistic for Taumalolo; he's had nine 2+ offloading games this season, this was his eighth game with a single offload. 

There is room for improvement in Taumalolo's game, yikes.

Taumalolo did go to a nek level though, a tweak of improvement on his already dominant work. Against Cronulla, Taumalolo averaged 11.77m/carry and that's almost a metre more per-carry than Taumalolo's season average of 10.84. Andrew Voss noted that Taumalolo went bonkers in the last stanza of the game, saving his impact for when the game was on the line and the flow of the game changed when Taumalolo re-entered the arena around the 60-minute mark. 

Corey Jensen played 19 minutes off the bench and held things down while Taumalolo was off, catching a breather. Taumalolo traditionally takes a break just after half-time, or either side of half-time, thus starting and finishing the game. Here he was coming up against Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita, who both averaged over 10m/carry and were immense but what was interesting in the last 15 minutes or so (including extra time) were the errors Gallen and Fifita made, while Taumalolo was at his best.

Gallen and Fifita both made crucial errors when Cronulla were searching, hunting for a field-goal. Taumalolo had enough energy to jump up and down with glee when Gallen fluffed a play-the-ball, then he had enough energy to roll down field, Taumalolo was also called on to return kick-offs, which usually falls to the 'props'. Taumalolo's speed made those kick-off carries a brutal activity; a bloke moving with that velocity into blokes who only want to smash him. 

Prior to the errors from Gallen and Fifita, Taumalolo also scored a try. This try came just after Taumalolo was brought back on by coach Paul Green, so he was as fresh as he could be and Taumalolo's try showcased his power in a slightly different way. We're so used to Taumalolo running, it's his speed/size/footwork combo that makes him who he is, yet for this try, Taumalolo didn't have time or space to stretch the legs. He got the footy, got wrapped up by Cronulla's defence and then simply pushed himself to the try-line. 

Taumalolo not only changed the flow of momentum with his block-bustin' carries, he started that momentum switch with a barge-over try. Just after Cronulla had scored via Jack Bird pouncing on a delightful grubber from Chad Townsend, just after Cronulla had got themselves right where they wanted to be with 20 minutes left.

This was a level up for Taumalolo based on what he's done this season, well mainly because he did it in the Finals, against a Sharks forward pack that is top two, if not the best. Taumalolo has had 12 games in which he's run over 200m, we can then narrow that down to three other 250m+ games with this Finals effort making it four.

Round 1 vs Raiders: 70mins, 22 carries, 295m (13.40m/carry), 1 L-B, 1 offload, 27 tackles 4 M-T, 0 errors.

Round 6 vs Tigers: 80mins, 1 try, 23 carries, 260m (11.30m/carry), 1 L-B, 2 offloads, 23 tackles, 2 M-T, 0 errors.

Round 15 vs Storm: 69mins, 26 carries, 300m (11.53m/carry), 3 offloads, 37 tackes, 1 M-T, 0 errors.

Finals Week 1: Sharks, 71mins, 1 try, 22 carries, 259m (11.77m/carry), 1 L-B, 1 offload, 37 tackles, 0 M-T, 0 errors.

Hello, World!

You can pick those apart and juggle the strength of opposition, minutes played, offence vs defence and somewhere in all of that you'll find Taumalolo's best game. That Taumalolo did what he did in a weakened Cowboys team, in the NRL Finals, against the defending Champions, should have you savouring Taumalolo's effort against Cronulla. 

Also important, as part of that savouring process is appreciating Taumalolo's defence. Against Cronulla, Taumalolo didn't miss any tackles and made 37, while he missed 1+ tackle in those other three games in which he enjoyed his best output running the footy. This was one of four games this season in which Taumalolo didn't miss a tackle and the only other game in which he made more tackles (he also made 37 tackles vs Brisbane, round 2) was against Cronulla in round 11. Taumalolo made 45 tackles in that game, missed a tackle and let's not pretend like Taumalolo is a consistent tackling machine either.

Taumalolo averaged 2 missed tackles/game this season and had 12 games where he missed 2+ tackles. Shit, Taumalolo missed 6 and 7 tackles in both games against Penrith this season. 
I'm convinced that there is genuine scope for Taumalolo to get a whole lot better, making legit leaps up the levels of being the South Auckland Rhino. He can average multiple offloads, throw cut-out passes and mix up his running lines where he'll get in-behind the ruck during one set and then the next set will see him use his speed and footwork to angle out to the edges. Taumalao can reach a nek level. 

What we saw against Cronulla, was Taumalolo rolling out a performance where he went from South Auckland Rhino level 2, to South Auckland Rhino level 2.5. All those areas of development for Taumalolo come with the footy and Taumalolo was awesome running the footy in this game, yet he also rolled out his best defensive effort of the season. It's all well and good to be a beast running the footy, but are you being marked as someone to run at because you're defence doesn't match your offence?

Taumalolo did what he needed to do, putting the Cowboys in a position to win this game. He did so by making various improvements on his 2017 work and now we're all left wondering if we'll see South Auckland Rhino level 3 in the coming weeks. 

Peace and love 27.

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