Since the ink is barely dry on Marty Taupau’s contract with the Sea Eagles, I thought it was only right to profile him as a Wests Tigers player, since that’s where he’s made his biggest mark on the NRL, as well as where he played his most recent representative match. In fact, it’s hard to discuss Kapow without touching on the Tigers – and the current state of the Tigers – since so much of his persona was crafted at Leichhardt Oval under Robbie Farah’s leadership. First and foremost, Kapow is known as the hardest man in the NRL, or at least the strongest, almost reaching an incredible 300kg deadlift on a video posted to YouTube, an achievement that would have placed him amongst the strongest players from international Rugby Union. While that was certainly a great spectacle to watch, what it means for his game is perhaps a bit less clear, since it’s by no means the only qualification for a great prop. Certainly, Aaron Woods can’t touch Taupau in terms of strength, and yet Woods is every bit the prop that Kapow is, and probably a bit better on his very best days as well – there’s a reason, after all, why he was called up for the Blues almost as soon as he was eligible.
At the same time, that’s not to discount the role that Kapow’s strength plays in the prop role either. If Origin is anything to go by – and Origin generally evolves at a faster rate than the rest of the game, giving us a bit of a taste of what’s in store – there’s been a movement away from players who specialise in any one position, unless, of course, they’re as tightly synergised as Slater, Smith and Cronk. In fact, one of the paradoxes of the Maroons as a team is that, despite that central unit, and despite a more consistent allocation of players over the last decade, they’ve also tended to allocate players who are more flexible at the same time, resulting in a relatively consistent roster of players who can take on the responsibilities of several positions at once, which makes watching a powerhouse Maroons performance akin to watch two or three brilliant teams command the field at any single moment. While Queensland are stereotypically the more conservative team, it’s actually in that brilliant combination of consistency and flexibility that a lot of their genius lies, although it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got some of the most versatile players in the NRL as well, with Inglis able to turn around from a powerhouse fullback role at Souths to cope with centre just as well – if not better – and DCE capable of spilling over into pretty much any position that comes into contact with halfback.
Among other things, that’s tended to spell the decline of the specialist prop, part of a longer process that arguably started with the great Bulldogs generation of the early 00s. While their innovations were many – and I’m talking strictly about their onfield performance here – one of the ways in which they dealt with such a multitude of big men on the team was to revise what the prop could mean. Where it was once customary to simply send out a couple of tanks onto the field and let them loose until they tired themselves out, the Bulldogs props were agile, lithe players who could more than carry their weight for an entire game while slipping into some the duties of lock, centre and even halfback as well. As a result, the specialist prop – let alone the personality prop – has become one of the most old-fashioned identities in the NRL. It’s no coincidence, then, that the most charismatic of the NRL’s current personality props – Woods – seems to have adopted a distinctly retro, 70s-inspired approach to the game, tacitly removing himself from the crossover hipster demographic that seems to have crept into the Tigers as Balmain has been increasingly gentrified over the last two decades. Even when he’s playing for the Blues, Woods still feels like he’s playing junior footy, which perhaps explains why he seems to be such an icon amongst junior Tigers, as well as why he’s so endearing and charismatic to watch.
While Woods is a bit of an outlier, there is nevertheless a sense in which the Blues have opened a bit of space for the specialist, personality prop to flourish again as well. In his efforts to thwart the Maroons, Laurie Daley has been placed in a difficult position, strategy-wise, since when you lose so consistently for this long, it’s clearly not enough to simply emulate your opponent’s strategy, especially when they appear to have perfected it so seamlessly. At the same time, it would be madness not to try and learn something from Meninga’s Maroons as well, with the result that New South Wales have often had a love-hate, push-pull relationship with Queensland strategies. While that can be clearest in the endless debates around their halves pairs – whether they should be consistent or variable, chosen from the same team or from different teams, proven at Origin or tested at the rep footy level – it’s also had an impact upon the role and function of prop as well, since one area where Queensland has arguably not excelled in the last ten years is in the choice and performance of their props. Maybe it’s just because their halfbacks, fullback and centres have performed so well, but props have always seemed like a chink in the Maroons’ armour, which perhaps explains why this is one of the areas where the Blues seem determined to beat them at their own game, aiming for a combination of prop muscularity and prop flexibility designed to rival the Bulldogs at their greatest, as well as to boost New South Wales’ defensive play, which is where Daley’s coaching is often the strongest.
It’s not surprising, then, that New South Wales boasts probably the strongest prop pair in any competition at the moment in the form of Woods and James Tamou. Both of them are big men, but they’re not so big that they can’t adapt under pressure, adopt some ancillary duties, or stick it out for an entire match. In a world in which prop specialisation is more and more anachronistic, here are two footy players who’ve done pretty much nothing but prop, and aren’t likely to do much but prop in the future either. While Taupau hasn’t played for Origin, and isn’t eligible for Origin, this pro-prop culture has nevertheless found its way into the Tigers by way of Farah’s dual captaincy, part of a wider Balmain-Blues continuum that’s likely to continue if Woods takes over the reins as skipper. Of course, Taupau is by no means an exclusive prop player, having spent a fair bit of time at lock, but there’s something about his aggression, his attitude, his charisma – and yes, his strength – that makes him feel like one of the next great props in waiting. After all, one of the hallmarks of this new breed of prop is that they’re capable of remaining affiliated to the role while absorbing ancillary duties. In particular, the connection between lock and prop has grown looser and looser, and it’s that specific combo that Taupau’s really started to master, which is presumably why Manly were so anxious to get him on their side.
While that’s a big victory for Manly, it’s a sad loss for the Tigers, since Taupau’s prop presence played a big part in propping up the team, something I’ve only fully realised now we’re officially faced with the prospect of a Wests outfit without him. More than even Manly, the Tigers have had a crisis of identity over the last year. In many ways, 2015 has played out as kind of cruel ten-year anniversary of their 2005 victory over the Cowboys, culminating with the one remaining player most integral to that victory – and to the spirit and longevity of the Tigers in the interim – being demoted in the most ungrateful manner. Sure, Farah can be emotional, volatile and unpredictable, but who wouldn’t be with the dual burdens of a Tigers and Blues captaincy? Add to that the retirement of Keith Galloway, the departure of Pat Richards for overseas, the rumored departure of Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses and the growing suspicion that even James Tedesco is unlikely to stick it for very long, and you a have a team in crisis, the kind of large scale implosion that may only come around once or twice a decade, but can also require an entire decade to recover. It’s bitterly ironic, then, that Tedesco nearly moved to the Raiders, since the Tigers are now roughly in the same position in which Canberra found themselves about half a decade ago, when the scandalous departures of Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson and Joel Monaghan left you wondering how they would ever manage to bounce back.
However, while implosions like this can appear very sudden, they’ve often been a long time coming, and have made their mark upon the ambience and atmosphere of the team long before they reach the public ear, especially when the relationship between captain and coach has been as fractious as it has reputedly been at Leichhardt. Over the last twelve months, in particular, it hasn’t been hard to sense that the Tigers are trying to brand themselves in terms of stability, security and community, and it’s noticeable how much Taupau has been a part of that process – especially for such a relatively junior and inexperienced player – to the point where his deadlift challenge started to feel like a victory for the Tiges as much as anything else, the raw burst of hyper-macho energy needed to lift them up from the doldrums and shoot them back into the stratosphere of 2005. As might be expected, Super Hero Round played a large part in that iconography, with the Tigers preserving their image of Kapow – the name even sounds like a superhero – dressed up in Marvel gear as one of the avatars for their site and press releases, as if the sheer physical presence of this hard man could somehow atone for the increasing emasculation of the Wests squad as a whole.
At the same time, there’s been something of a convergence between NRL and combat sports in the last couple of years that probably has a bit to do with Taupau’s star image as well. As it stands, Rugby League is the most brutal of all football codes, outdoing its rivals to such an extent that it really belongs more with combat sports such as boxing, martial arts and MMA. As the NRL is rocked by more and more scandal, and finds it harder and harder to compete with AFL, Union or A-League for viewership, status or social acceptance, it feels as if players have moved in the opposite direction and embraced their affiliation with combat sports rather than contact sports. And, if you think about it, NRL is pretty much a combat sport in the guise of a contact sport, a series of brutal, plosive one-on-one encounters that may happen to play out across the breadth of a footy field, but are more attuned to the boxing ring than anything else, perhaps explaining why big hits are such a stand-alone spectacle in NRL, and in Origin footy in particular. For every NRL fan that loves the game for the game, there’s ten or twenty who loves the spectacle of big hits in and of themselves. While there’s a certain pleasure in analysing gameplay, stats and strategies, the relative simplicity and economy of boxing also means that big hits tend to speak to a wider sporting fanbase – or even a non-sporting fanbase – than the intricacies of football itself, which perhaps explains why Origin always manages to attract such a broad range of people. In effect, Origin often plays out as a series of one-on-one boxing matches between Team Queensland and Team New South Wales as much as a sustained game, which is one of the many reasons why Origin works so well at a pub, and why pubs market it in much the same way as they market international fights and boxing matches.
While big hits play a role in NRL’s convergence with combat sports, there have also been more systematic efforts to introduce a combat mentality into the game, such as Craig Bellamy’s controversial decision to consult martial arts specialists in order to enable the Storm to pin down players more brutally and emphatically during tackles. At the same time, despite those martial arts fringes, the convergence of NRL with combat sports has most often occurred by way of boxing, and has become more and more normalised over the last half-decade in particular. When Anthony Mundine quit the Dragons to pursue a full-time boxing career, it was almost the Australian equivalent of Michael Jordon quitting the NBA to play for the Scottsdale Scorpion. Sure, the stakes were nowhere as high in the case of Mundine, but in the Australian sporting landscape it was a big deal, not least because Mundine quit before he’d achieved anything like his Rugby League potential, to the point where it sometimes feels as if the Dragons are still trying to find a way to make up for the rep career he never gave them. Sonny Bill Williams was the next major player to turn to boxing, and while he didn’t reject Rugby League in the same way that Mundine did – if anything, his boxing career seemed to cement him as an all-rounder, legitimising his Union career even more in the process – he still felt like something of a trailblazer. It’s no coincidence, then, that both Mundine and SBW were managed by Khoder Nasser, nor that Quade Cooper, Nasser’s other big client, also pursued a combination of Union and boxing around this time, since Nasser’s big innovation as a manager has been to appeal for flexibility above all else – and especially flexibility between codes, competitions and sports – even if his definition of flexibility pretty much involves the rest of the world cowtowing to the privileged 1% of players who can afford his managerial assets.
If Mundine, SBW and Quade Cooper – and Nasser as their manager – were trailblazers in promoting boxing-footy crossovers, then the rise of social media also played a role as well. On the one hand, platforms like YouTube have allowed fans to curate compilations of big hits in such a way as to envisage the game as a succession of ersatz boxing matches. One of the big traditions when Origin comes around involves sharing these compilations within the NRL community, as well as sharing new compilations after the matches air, in what often seems like a competition as to who can best distill the combat sport lurking at the heart of this supposedly football-centric spectacle. At the same time, YouTube has become a kind of informal sporting venue in itself, especially for chamber sports like boxing, with a great deal of Paul Gallen’s most recent foray into boxing playing out online, in the form of interviews, pep talks and warmup videos, creating a whole new synergy between the footy field and the boxing ring that would have been unthinkable in the days when television was all that we had. After all, it was on YouTube that Taupau unveiled his 300kg deadlift, while the way in which the attempt fell through also seemed to say something about the fallibility and intimacy of YouTube as well, and the way in which it can turn stadium spectacle into something more homegrown, rootsy and familiar.
While Taupau hasn’t boxed himself, or expressed any sustained interest in he;s nevertheless a part of this moment insofar as the boxing-footy continuum works both ways, inducing players to import boxing methods and mentalities on the field as well. While the smackdown between Steve Matai and Mitch Allgood was arguably the big hit of 2013, what was perhaps less commented upon in the media was the fact that Matai and Allgood had boxed at the same gym, and occasionally sparred with each other. In the heat of the moment, if felt as if Allgood had simply takendhis training too literally, dishing out a couple of punches that would have been pure genius in the ring but felt out of place on a footy field that still hasn’t quite figured out to how to negotiate its growing convergence with the culture of combat sports. And, as the Allgood encounter might suggest, this convergence has been particularly clear amongst locks and props, just because these are the kinds of heavyweights who spend most of their time using their hands defensively, fending off other big men in order to clear up space for the ball to move. If the prop has evolved to become more versatile, then, it’s partly by extending the reach and ambit of fends, to the point where they’re starting to feel more drawn from boxing hand movements than from footy, without ever quite clenching them into a fist or dishing out a punch either.
As always, Origin has been a bit of a trailblazer in that respect, with Tamou in particular moving more and more towards this open-palm-punch kind of approach, one of several factors that inflamed his biff with Slater in Origin 2 this year. While seeing Slater smashed with the face with a Steeden – and seeing in slow-motion, no less – has to be my favourite grubby moment of the year, as well as my pick for the best NRL gif of the year, there’s something even more emphatic about Taupau’s fends that, once again, makes you wish he was eligible of playing for Origin. In many ways, the best strategy for dishing out an open-palm-punch – or for imbuing a fend with the plosive power of a punch – is to let the opposition cop it in the face, and Taupau has made a bit of a name for himself with his face-fends, most dramatically in his smashdown over Alex Johnston in the Tigers clash against the Rabbitohs in June this year. In many ways, this is the image that’s come to define Kapow, and it’s an appropriate one, since, taken on its own terms, it could be almost be a still from a boxing match or a boxing movie as much as a moment from a footy game, the kind of belting that only a heavyweight can dish out and hope to get away with. Add to that Kapow’s theatricality on the field – who could forget Corey Parker’s rage about the throat-slitting gesture? – as well as his taste for a particular visceral and desperate kind of dirtiness – who else would go in for a bit in the middle of a Roosters scrum? – and you’ve got a macho flamboyance that almost verges on camp, a bit like a WWF wrestler who’s just happen to chance upon NRL as his preferred sport.
Despite Mundine’s move, however, there isn’t much of a culture of NRL players moving exclusively into combat sports. Although you can speculate as to why that is, I have to wonder whether a career in boxing would be too low-key for an NRL player. After all, a boxer only has so many matches a year, whereas there’s a footy game every week during the on-season. Similarly, a great deal of the plosive intensity of Rugby League comes from the way in which one-on-one clashes and combat moments emerge, unscripted, with all the volatility of a spontaneous biff. In that sense, then, and for all its raw, visceral power, Origin perhaps pales a bit in the shadow of a Matai-Allgood or Taupau-Johnston showdown, just because it’s understood that biffs are going to be a part of the Origin experience. As part of the planned spectacle of it all, they lose a bit of the surprise fact that you get when they emerge – as they often do – in the midst of an otherwise totally underwhelming and forgettable rep footy match. Add to that the fact that Mundine has actually seemed to lose a lot of his sporting potency as his boxing career has proceeded, and there’s a sense that football is perhaps the best place for a combat master like Taupau to remain.
Of course, football doesn’t mean NRL, and in the wake of the Hayne Plane’s departure for the 49ers, there’s been an increasing sense that Gridiron may represent a space where all the combative tendencies of Rugby League are put to a new kind of test, not least because the stop-start rhythm of NFL often makes it feel like a series of individual combats as much as a sustained game of football. While other hard-knocks players – most notably Josh Dugan – have expressed their interest in following Hayne, Hayne himself has arguably made the most emphatic gesture of mentorship to Taupau, meeting up with him to discuss his prospects in the NFL and recommending that he aim for the role of linebacker, which makes sense given Kapow’s size and weight, but perhaps underestimates the amount of speed he needs to gets behind to him to take up a mortgage behind the scrimmage. Nevertheless, Taupau was clearly impressed enough by Hayne’s advice to publicly announce that he would be considering a NFL option when his contract at the Tigers expired at the end of 2016, which raises the interesting question of what, exactly, his sudden move to Manly means in the context of his American ambitions.
On the one hand, it could mean that he’s committed to NRL, which would also seem to be supported by how vocal he’s been about making the decision for the sake of his family. On the other hand, it’s possible that he’s treating Manly as a bit of a transitional zone between the Tigers and the NFL, not an unwise move given how much Leichhardt’s star is falling as well as how successfully Manly seems to be regrouping – or, rather, deflecting the need to regroup by managing to keep on old hats like Stewart and Matai in order to anchor a new generation of young guns as they try to build Brookvale up to its former glory. At the end of the day, you can never quite trust an NRL player when they invoke their family – it’s often just a way of saying nothing – while there’s something that feels appropriate about this version of Manly as a departure point for the NFL as well. In the NRL mindset, it often feels as if Melbourne is the logical point of departure for Aussie Rules, not just because it’s planted in the heart of AFL territory, but because two of the NRL players who have been most affiliated with the AFL – Israel Folau and Will Chambers – both cut their teeth with the Storm, as well as the Storm-Maroons outfit that was so dominant in Origin in the late 00s, before being whittled down to the Smith-Slater-Cronk trio that continues to dominate up until the present day (although I’ve also written in another post about how drastically Chamber continues to be underrated within this Storm-Maroons unit). At the same time, the Roosters seem to be perceived as the logical point of departure for Rugby Union, partly because of Sonny Bill Williams’ recent stint, with the endless speculations as to whether the Kiwi legend would remain with the Chooks or depart once again for Union seeming to define everything about the team from 2013 to 2014. At the same time, the aspirational nature of the Roosters makes them feel more continuous with Union, as does their shared home ground at Allianz and their competition with the Tahs, in particular, for supremacy as the premium boutique Sydney City football team.
As it stands, however, there is no team that’s been traditionally associated with departure for the NFL. In part, that’s because Hayne was the first Rugby League player to make the transition, but it’s also because Hayne’s movement actually seemed to emphasise the Eels discontinuity with American football. Of course, that’s not just Hayne – the Eels often feel like they’re in a different grade from the rest of the competition, let alone the storied, mythical, larger-than-life teams of the NFL. At the same time, Hayne was clearly so ready to leave that it felt as if Parra was holding him back more than preparing him for San Francisco, just as most reports from the sheds suggested he hadn’t been motivated in his game for a very long time. Part of the trauma, to the Australian media, of Hayne’s departure, then, has been the difficulty of attributing his success to his home team, with the result that Origin has more often been used to illustrate his indebtedness to his Australian roots, something Hayne has also seemed to acknowledge with his comparisons between the NFL and his time with the Blues. In that sense, Origin is perhaps the logical point of departure for the NFL, not only because it also tends to have a similar stop-start motion, but also it’s one of the few Rugby League events that are organised in terms of state affiliation, as often occurs within American Football. For a player like Taupau, however, who is excluded from Origin, Manly makes sense as the next best thing, since, as I’ve mentioned in recent posts about Brett Stewart and Steve Matai, Manly has a particular culture and tradition of playing rep footy at the speed and style of Origin, which is perhaps part of what lured a player like Taupau in the first place, who would excel at Origin but is ineligible for Origin.
In addition, Manly prides itself on players like Matai and Stewart – and former players like Foran, Kite and Glenn Stewart – who are able maintain the balance between explosiveness and durability that has become so critical to the Blues’ props and locks. At the same time, however, that balance addresses the particular challenge that Taupau has to overcome to make himself worthy of the NFL – namely, to add more explosive speed to his bulk, but to also gain more durability between those explosive bursts as well, which is, appropriately, one of the main assets of the Pittsburgh Stellers, Taupau’s favourite team. Matai, in particular, has utterly nailed that combo over the last decade, and I’ve mentioned in my previous post that Skivvy’s likely to become something of a mentor figure to Taupau in particular. With or without his help, though, Taupau is faced with a unique opportunity at Manly, where’s he’ll have the opportunity to develop as a Blues prop without actually experiencing Origin, as well as gaining access to an environment that may just allow him to evolve into the greatest linebacker in the NRL, turning Manly into the first great NFL incubation pad in the process. Whatever happens, it’ll be fascinating to watch Kapow’s progress over the next couple of years, while seeing him and Matai working together promises to be pure dynamite, and almost enough for this Tigers fan to be reconciled to him departing the team that’s he’s made so much his own over the last couple of years.