Jason Taumalolo ran for 345 metres with the ball in hand — the most by a forward ever recorded in a single game — against the Bulldogs in March.
But stats alone can’t describe his impact.
His sheer dominance in a passage eight minutes before full-time cancelled Canterbury’s comeback.
He was ferocious and unrelenting. Nothing could slow him down.
Apart from the coronavirus lockdown.
Before the virus arrived, he had achieved almost everything in the game, and all before reaching his prime.
As rugby league returns, the numbers suggest Taumalolo may be accelerating on his path towards greatness.
Tucked up in Townsville
Having just swatted away Canterbury’s pack on that steamy autumn night in March, Taumalolo was asked how he could be stopped.
“I guess I’m like everyone else, two hands, two feet.
“I like running the ball, I guess.”
His bashfulness belies his brilliance.
Taumalolo debuted in first grade as a schoolboy in 2010, won a premiership in 2015, claimed the Dally M Medal in 2016, becoming the only winner of the competition’s best player award in the past three decades who didn’t play full-back, hooker, or in the halves.
His decision to switch allegiance from New Zealand and represent Tonga in 2017 — and his role drawing others along with him — helped propel the Pacific nation to victories over traditional powers Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand and make international rugby league interesting again.
Tucked up in Townsville, away from the Sydney and Brisbane papers, ineligible for Origin and with a speculation-killing long-term contract, Taumalolo has been easy for some rugby league fans to take for granted.
But his ability to produce metres and play big minutes is on another level.
The Cowboys lock is one of the few forwards in the game to consistently average more than 10 metres per run over the past five seasons.
And he’s done that at close to one run every three minutes he’s on the field, a work rate matched by only a few other forwards pulling short shifts.
Notes: One dot represents one player’s season averages; 2015-2019; minimum 15 appearances per season. Source: NRL.com Stats
What makes him great
Over the years Taumalolo’s received many plaudits, and those closest to him best understand his brilliance.
Taumalolo’s former teammate, Johnathan Thurston, nominated him as the best “boom forward” he’s ever seen.
“He can pass pre-line, offload,” he shared on Channel Nine in March.
“He’s got a great motor on him and he’s only going to get better.”
But as Kristian Woolf, his coach for Tonga now coaching St Helens in England, tells the ABC, Taumalolo has gifts others his size just don’t have.
“The way he moves, his speed and athleticism — his footwork for such a big man is obviously fairly unique,” he said.
While Taumalolo plays lock and at times second row, at 117 kilograms he is among the heaviest players in the game alongside top props, such as Manly’s Addin Fonua-Blake, Canberra’s Josh Papalii and Brisbane’s Payne Haas.
But even in a short comparison of the game’s elite big men, Woolf’s insight into Taumalolo’s footwork (lower right) comes to life.
His combination of power and mobility has proven devastating, both before he meets the line and after.
Since 2015, only six players have tallied more than 1,500 post-contact metres across a whole season. It’s been done 10 times in that period, with Taumalolo accounting for four of those 10.
Taumalolo is explosive, with a high work rate and flashy footwork. And there’s evidence he could be in for an expanded role in coming years.
Typically props and locks play fewer minutes than second rowers, reflecting their higher defensive workload in the middle of the ruck.
During last year’s post-season international fixtures, Taumalolo played close to 50 minutes in each match.
Woolf credits the quality of the Tongan bench for not having to play him more.
“It takes a little bit of the emphasis off needing to have Jason out there for too long, where you start to lose a little bit of his impact,” Woolf said.
Back in 2014, Cowboys coach Paul Green lined up the then-20-year-old on an edge and handed him an 80-minute licence, but over the course of the season he changed his approach.
“I think we’ll probably get better quality out of Jase playing less than a full game,” Green said at the time.
“It’s a big ask for him to play 80 minutes week-in, week-out.”
A year after the position switch, the Cowboys won a premiership.
But coach Green has slowly been increasing his load since then. From 52 minutes per match in 2016, to 64 minutes last season.
Note: The red line is a rolling average of minutes over the previous 15 games.
He played the full 80 in three matches in both 2018 and 2019. In those matches he’s averaging a monstrous 220 metres.
So far in 2020, he’s playing more than 70 minutes. It seems to be working.
How good can he be?
Clint Amos is a name only committed rugby league fans will recall.
He describes himself as an ungifted but disciplined player and only played 37 NRL matches, but he’ll go down in history as the man who made way for Jason Taumalolo.
A utility forward with the Cowboys 10 years ago — the season in which Taumalolo made his debut — Amos spent time mentoring the youngster.
And Taumalolo’s first game will forever be tied to Amos and his wife Hannah’s first child, Finn.
She felt contractions on a Friday evening in 2010, but the baby didn’t arrive until the next afternoon.
By then, Amos had gone without sleep, food and water for close to 24 hours.
A few hours before Saturday night kick-off, he spoke to then-coach Neil Henry who asked what condition he was in and whether he could play.
“I said I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon. I haven’t drunk any water, I’m going to make the decision to say no,” Amos said.
A 17-year-old Taumalolo was the late call-up even though he’d never trained with the first-grade team.
Amos could see even at that age that Taumalolo was going to be special.
“You knew Jase was going to be a superstar,” he said.
“He just had this raw strength and this innate ability to find a gap and just be there at the right time.”
That debut will be 10 years ago this August.
Ten years in rugby league is a long time, and nobody knows more than Taumalolo.
In 2017, he signed a decade-long contract worth a reported $1 million per year.
It’s invited speculation about just how effective he will remain as the contract winds down.
While a consistent performer, he hasn’t been free of injury. One serious knee sprain last year put him out for more than a month.
Paul Gallen — though smaller and less explosive than Taumalolo — set the benchmark for a forward’s production during his career. Retiring last year at age 38, he amassed more than 55,000 metres with the ball.
Taumalolo would need to stay healthy and maintain his recent rate of production to exceed the tally of the Sharks’ legend by the time his contract expires.
However, the Cowboys icon has bigger plans than simply pushing up lines on a chart.
“Signing a long-term deal, the motivation isn’t so much to try and get myself ready for another big year and do it for long periods of time,” Taumalolo told AAP in March.
“I have moved past that stage.
“For me it’s trying to leave a legacy behind. I have come this far and I want to try and play the best footy I can.
“And hopefully that sticks with fans and people in rugby league, that one day I am one of the best to play the game.
“Legacy is driving me right now and probably for the rest of my career.”
Despite Taumalolo’s achievements, there are more fans to win over.
Like Amos’s nine-year-old son, Finn.
It might seem logical that the best forward in the game was the nine-year-old’s favourite player.
A fan whose birth brought Taumalolo into the NRL.
But rugby league is rarely logical.
“Nah,” Amos says on behalf of his son.
“He loves Gavin Cooper.”
Jason Taumalolo’s North Queensland Cowboys play the Gold Coast Titans at 6:00pm on Friday, May 29.