Trans-Tasman Test sparks Kiwi rise
When Kiwis coach Stephen Kearney pulled out a NSW Cup player to outgun Johnathan Thurston, a six-foot-three forward to start in his place, and a three-gamer to be the road hump in front of Matt Scott and Nate Myles in May, almost everyone thought he had lost his marbles.
That was about the only conclusion you could up with when you read names like Isaac John, Tohu Harris and Ben Henry on the New Zealand team sheet mid-season.
Prop Martin Taupau was another curious choice, a bolter over shock omission Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and one of six debutants named in an 18-man squad to face off against the World Cup champions, complete with over 280 Tests between them.
Taupau should be considered on the same, if not a higher, level of rugby league kookiness.
What else can you say about a bloke brave enough to join Fuifui Moimoi and Steve Matai on a list of League players wearing cornrows? It's a frightening catalogue of radical hitmen that speaks for itself.
Then there were these fighting words he used in a pre-game pep ahead of a blockbuster against Manly: "Red hot?" he asked of their forward pack.
"Most people say they're intimidating, [but] there's nothing that intimidates us as a forward pack... we stepped up to the Burgess brothers, we'll do the same thing with Manly," Taupau said.
So when you're talking about rugby league loonies, Taupau should be stuffed right up with the best of them. It is why Kearney leaned on selections like the reborn Wests Tigers prop against the Kangaroos back in May. And why he came up trumps in just about every department but the scoreboard that day.
"It happened pretty quickly. Words can't describe what was running through my body and my mind at the time, it was just crazy. A crazy buzz," Taupau recalled to NRL.com this week.
"Everyone had everyone's back, back in the [Trans-Tasman] Test and we all believed in each other's ability and I believed in my own ability, that I could turn up and help out the boys.
"We've taken that and brought that back here and you could see even when we were on the back foot [against Australia] there was a lot of talk from the boys, a lot of self belief and we never gave up."
Skipper Simon Mannering, who has appeared for the Kiwis every year since 2006, was far more reserved about their fighting spirit in that 30-18 defeat to the Kangaroos earlier this year, but lauded Kearney's confidence in what was clearly an under-strength squad.
The real effect, he said, was the manner in which they backed it up with a strong win over their Trans-Tasman rivals last week.
"I think there were a lot of positives to come out of that week [in May]. Obviously we had a few debutants and it's always good to add some more depth to the Kiwis," he said.
"There probably was a feeling amongst the group that if we put more emphasis on ourselves, and not worry too much about who we're playing against, that we can match it with a quality team like Australia.
"They were only two pretty decent performances back-to-back. There's still a long way to go for us as a group but there's a good feeling amongst the team. I don't want us getting too far ahead of ourselves but it's a good start to a tournament that's going to get tougher as it goes on."
Taupau, 24, enjoyed a breakout season in his first year with the Tigers since moving from Belmore last summer.
The fourth-year Auckland product was one of just two Tigers to play in all 24 games this season – the other being fellow Kiwi Adam Blair. Tapau averaged almost 100 metres and 18 tackles a weekend, he also busted 67 tackles, second most in the team.
All of which will be on show when he and his teammates meet Samoa in the first ever Test played in the north island town of Whangarei in New Zealand.
"I know the guys have been looking forward to this tournament all year because we get an opportunity to play in front of our people and we don't often get that," Kearney said.
"It's something special to the boys, we're playing in Whangarei where there's never been a Test match and I know the people of Whangarei will get behind us. We're really looking forward to it and it does mean a great deal to us when we do play at home."