Rekindled confidence behind Tamou's recall
Six weeks ago James Tamou was missing something every player with his strength, size and ability should have – confidence.
Off-season neck surgery left the 195-centimetre, 114-kilogram giant scarred and scared; thoughts of an unknown playing future even had the 128-game veteran searching for other jobs outside of football.
Tamou's surgery was major – shaving bone off his vertebrae to help alleviate a nerve problem in his left arm – a distressing experience even for someone of his physical stature.
Understandably it took Tamou a couple of weeks to find his groove out on the playing field, but after another unconvincing display against the Broncos in Round 3, the Cowboys prop was expecting club coach Paul Green to tell him that a stint in Queensland's Intrust Super Cup was the way forward.
The New Zealand-born prop survived the chop that week and was selected for North Queensland's Round 4 Monday night clash against Melbourne in Townsville.
During that match came a turning point for Tamou where months of self-doubt and personal torment were all wiped away with one single hit-up.
Trailing 16-4 and in desperate need of a win to kick-start their season, the Cowboys received a line dropout in the 60th minute.
Cameron Smith's wind-affected kick was caught on the 40-metre line by Johnathan Thurston who dished off to a rampaging Tamou to take the first tackle.
With his long legs lumbering full steam towards the Storm defensive line, Tamou crashed into a tackle by Kevin Proctor and Will Chambers and quickly rose to his feet to play the ball – giving Proctor a friendly shove as afters.
One tackle later and winger Antonio Winterstein crossed in the corner for his second try of the night; igniting the Cowboys' comeback, who eventually won the game 18-17 in golden point, and sparking the beginning of a five-match unbeaten run.
"Before the Storm game we were obviously losing and I still wasn’t really confident in my body. I was taking hit-ups and still turning my body and wasn’t taking the full force," Tamou told NRL.com.
"Then there was one hit-up off a drop-out and I took the ball up and just went full tilt – we needed some points so I thought 'I've got to pick my team up here' – and just ran the ball up straight into their line.
"I found my front and played the ball and thought 'I'm going alright and my body feels fine, why I can't do that all the time?'.
"So [then] I thought 'there's no reason why not' and I just proved [at that moment] that my body would pull up fine."
Averaging 108 metres, 18 tackles and only making two tackle busts during the first three rounds, Tamou's numbers in his five games since show a man with confidence on the rise.
With more playing time helping his cause, those numbers have risen to an average of 129 metres and 23 tackles per game with an extra four tackle busts and one line break coming during that five-week period.
Although that one moment against the Storm may have been the catalyst for Tamou's turnaround, the 26-year-old has been slowly sowing the seeds of confidence on a weekly basis.
"Little by little through the rounds I've been getting that confidence back. Knowing how big I am and doing what I know I can do and obviously the neck surgery was a big setback but I think the players around me have helped as well," he said.
"Matt Scott's been in my ear about how good I have been in the past and I can get back to that.
"With the rehab I had to test [the neck] out in training and had a few of the big boys running at me but you could never really test it until you're in an actual game.
"After those first three rounds I thought I'd be dropped down to Q Cup and I was happy with that because I'd accepted it.
"[But] as I went on week by week I found out something new I could do with my body and that drew confidence in me and I thought nothing's going to happen [to me] with each tackle and hit-up I had – so I just had to get that through my head and it has now and I'm better for it."
After missing out on selection for last year's end-of-season Four Nations tournament, Tamou feels that without the help of his Cowboys teammates he wouldn’t have been able to add to his 10 Test caps come Friday night.
The Cowboys chalked up five-straight wins on Anzac Day against the Knights with Tamou collecting the Anzac Medal for Man of the Match and finding out after the game that he had received a Kangaroos recall.
"That was probably one of the best things to come out of Saturday apart from being told after the game I was going to be in the Australian side which was a big thing," he said.
"That Anzac Medal will be put in the trophy case proudly and I'm still half speechless because I'm still shocked from accepting something like that.
"If we were anything apart from five in a row it's hard to say whether I'd be here or not. I think that streak with the Cowboys has played a big part in [my selection].
"With everything that's happened I'm happy to take and have this opportunity… The pool of talent we have here and to be included in that is unreal."
One Kangaroos teammate who knows how far Tamou has come in the past six weeks is fellow Cowboys prop Matt Scott, who is also back in the Australian side after shoulder surgery ruled him out of the 2014 Four Nations.
"For Jimmy it was just about getting his confidence back and confidence in his ability. Also a bit of game time helped too – front rowers need that match fitness – and he's just getting better and better each week," Scott told NRL.com.
"I thought on the weekend against Newcastle was the best game I've seen him play for a long time.
"He was outstanding and hard to handle and it's just great to see him back in this [Australian] side and I think you'll see Jimmy get even better… Just the way he was bringing back balls from the kick-off he seemed like the Jimmy of old.
"He was charging into them and he's such a big, strong lad and very hard to handle when he's running like that."