Taumalolo and Ma'u's shared bond
Every single one of us has a story to tell, but very few can match those told by the two men who will wear the No.12 on their backs when Parramatta host North Queensland at Pirtek Stadium on Friday night.
The troubled tale of Parramatta's rookie wrecking ball Manu Ma'u – spending time in the slammer to slamming all those in his way on the footy field – has been well chronicled this season.
But how about his opposite number in the blue, yellow and grey; the 191cm, 112kg behemoth of a 21-year-old named Jason Taumalolo? The man whose smile lights up with two gold front teeth that make you wonder what exactly he has been up to in years past.
His story indeed runs distinctly parallel to Ma'u's. Growing up on the mean streets of South Auckland, Taumalolo admits he was travelling down the same path of destruction in a place he says consumes many a young people and traps them into living the rebellious and misfit life of a criminal.
"I was a bit of a troublemaker back when I was young," he told NRL.com with the glint in his eye of someone who knows they found a much better place.
"Growing up in South Auckland, it's a rough place and there's a lot of violence and I guess I grew up around that and I couldn't help but be influenced by it. There were troubles everywhere and I've gotten into a couple fights myself."
And of course, he had stories.
"There have been a couple, but a good story was when there were these two twins that I went to school with back in intermediate (grade seven). It was just a brand new rivalry and we played each other every time at lunch, and one time it escalated when I kinda gave it to one of the twins and the other twin came out of nowhere and the next thing I know we were weighing each other up after school.
"We were waiting outside of school and it was an all-out brawl on the school crossing out on the road so that didn't end well for me, but I've learned a lot. I've learned that I'm a lover, not a fighter and I think Manu Ma'u is probably exactly the same. Especially after past experiences, he's a better person for that."
It was at the age of 13 that Jason and his family moved from the largest city in New Zealand across the Tasman and up to Townsville; a move which he credits to the position he finds himself in today.
The change in lifestyle would signify a dramatic change in Taumalolo's outlook, but admittedly not straight away.
"When I had first moved over here I was in Year 9 and within the first four weeks I got kicked out, suspended from my first school because I got into a fight. So that made two schools – back in New Zealand I got suspended from Kedgley Intermediate School and Kirwan High over here.
"It wasn't the best way to start school in Townsville but I came back the following year and knew that I needed to do something with my life and footy was to be a part of it.
"It was a matter of me realising, myself, that I couldn't keep behaving that way if I wanted to try and make the NRL, because that was the goal from a young age. It's got me this far so I have to keep to it," he said, bursting with pride.
Nowadays, the more extreme pastimes this footy-focused young man partakes in are club challenges – and there was one quite vivid in his memory.
The Weet-Bix Challenge; the one where you try to upstage Jarryd Hayne by tackling a whole box of the breakfast cereal in one sitting…and winning. That's 24 biscuits if you don't mind.
"It was a challenge that Gavin Cooper and pretty much all the older boys set out for me. Every now and then we have a few challenges but that was definitely one to remember from the boys.
"I was the young guy back then so it was initiation I guess. With that Weet-Bix ad, you know how Jarryd Hayne goes ‘I can do five, how many can you do?'
“All the boys had a good laugh there."
Since taking the field for Mangere East Rugby League Club at just four years of age, football has dominated Taumalolo's life, idolising players such as Ruben Wiki, Sonny Bill Williams and Greg Eastwood for their passion, skill and effort.
"Coming up I idolised guys like Sonny Bill Williams and guys who played a lot more free-flowing and offloading and all of that, but then I guess in the past couple of years I've realised that the footwork isn't for me so I've just started to go for the more power game, like Greg Eastwood. For someone his size, he has a bit of footwork but he is also powerful so that's the kind of game I try to mould my game around.
"I'm definitely striving to be a permanent representative player and a more established player like Michael Morgan, the superstar himself," he proclaimed, raising his voice – loud enough for Morgan to hear from the other side of the room.
"Hopefully the next couple of years I'll be a more established player than I am now. It is definitely a realistic goal but at the end of the day it comes down to putting the work in."
This Friday will mark Taumalolo's second encounter with Ma'u after the two fought out a relative draw in their Round 8 clash. And while you would expect bragging rights to be at stake between two testosterone-fuelled young forwards eager to prove themselves, you get the sense that emotions are quite the opposite between the two who know the sorts of battles each other have fought to get to where they are now.
"In the game we played up here, every now and then when he tackled me or I tackled him we would exchange a few friendly words like, ‘Hey how are you, mate?' and ‘Yeah good, mate' which is nice because I don't really know him a lot.
"I think we both have that same respect for one another because we came from the same kind of place."