Jason Taumalolo, North Queensland Cowboys, Tonga, Unbreakables Series, Toyota
Jason Taumalolo made history at just 17 and, over the span of a decade, helped the Cowboys win final glory and Tonga to historic triumph.
He is now widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the game, but his path to stardom was far from easy.
Taumalolo left New Zealand at age 13, attending Kirwan State High School and earning a scholarship with the Cowboys.
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“It was pretty scary back then,” he told Hannah Hollis of Fox Sports Australia.
“I took a huge bet to obviously move at a young age. I didn’t want to leave mom and dad. I think they were just as nervous as I was.
“They didn’t want me to go but knew that if I really wanted to chase him they would support me no matter what.”
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However, that wasn’t the only challenge he faced, quickly learning to accept the growing expectations that came with building multiple representative teams.
Taumalolo’s rapid rise continued as he made his NRL debut at just 17, becoming the youngest cowboy to achieve this feat.
“All I remember are boys walking around me, patting me on the back and pulling my shirt,” he said of the debut.
“I celebrated and carried on. It took me a while to figure out that I was making my debut.
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Taumalolo first worked his way into the higher class off the bench before starting in the second row and eventually moving into lockdown forward.
Taumalolo really made his mark in the middle of the park, running 227 meters for his fourth start at the post.
It came in a devastating 31-30 semi-final loss to the Roosters – an incredible comeback that narrowly failed.
A year from now, Taumalolo and his Cowboys teammates would celebrate their very first PM job, achieved under even more dire circumstances.
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Time seemed to have stood still when Michael Morgan sent the ball to an unmarked Kyle Feldt who sliced in the corner as the full-time siren sounded.
“I remember running towards Feldty,” he said, recalling the moment.
“I remember kissing him twice on the cheek. For those who don’t remember, we played in the 2011 Under-20 Grand Final and he missed a kick to send the game into overtime.
“When he put the ball down I ran and said, ‘This is redemption’ and celebrated and carried on as we did.”
Johnathan Thurston then missed what would have been the winning shot, but didn’t make the same mistake scoring the basket a few minutes later.
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A 17-16 win over Queensland rivals the Brisbane Broncos and Taumalolo’s first prime ministerial post.
Just a year after breaking the title drought, Taumalolo became the first striker to win the game’s biggest honor – the Dally M.
He was crowned a co-winner alongside Melbourne Storm half-back Cooper Cronk.
“[It felt] pretty surreal standing up there, ”Taumalolo said.
“To even be mentioned in the last round alongside Coops. Honestly, I figured if I lost I would be happy, just to be mentioned in the last two.
“It was another dream come true to win such a prestigious award alongside a great player.”
Taumalolo had already accomplished so much underground but there was one more desire, he wanted to make a statement on the international scene.
That’s exactly what he did in 2019 as a sea of red celebrated Tonga’s historic victory over the Kangaroos.
Now Taumalolo faces his biggest challenge yet, heading North Queensland without its inspiring leaders Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott.
The pair have guided the Cowboys to premier glory, but now the team is in the process of rebuilding under new coach Todd Payten.
At least it was supposed to be a rebuild.
North Queensland are already in contention for the final, however, and are looking for a much improved squad in 2021.
At 28, Taumalolo is ready to assume his responsibility as leader of this group.