Taumalolo: Burgess still the benchmark
Cowboys lock Jason Taumalolo has lit the fuse for potentially the most explosive match-up of the 2016 season, saying he is eagerly awaiting the chance to test himself against returning South Sydney star Sam Burgess.
Providing Burgess's contract is ratified by the NRL he will play his first NRL game since his 2014 Grand Final heroics against the Roosters in Round 1 but Taumalolo already has his eyes on Round 7 when the Rabbitohs travel to Townsville for a Friday night heavyweight showdown sure to fill 1300SMILES Stadium.
The return of Sonny Bill Williams to the NRL in 2013 provided one of the most enthralling individual match-ups of the season with Burgess at one point trampling over the Kiwi superstar in the Rabbitohs' Round 1 win over the Roosters.
Williams would have the last laugh however as he inspired the Roosters to the 2013 Telstra Premiership and now three years later Burgess will go from being the hunter to the hunted upon his return to rugby league.
The pair have met just three times in the NRL previously with the Cowboys coming out victorious on each occasion but never have Taumalolo and Burgess played against each other as the opposing lock forwards.
Also now boasting a grand final win to his name, Taumalolo was Burgess's successor as the Dally M Lock of the Year but believes even after 12 months playing rugby union the dual England international and Broncos veteran Corey Parker remain the benchmark for their position.
Widely lauded for a more consistent season in which he played in 26 of a possible 28 games for the Cowboys, the 22-year-old says the return of Burgess puts pressure on him to back it up again in 2016 under the intensity of a premiership defence.
"Some of my performances last year were a bit up and down but with the return of Sam Burgess I'm under more pressure to back it up," Taumalolo said.
"A lot of pressure will be on him to play a good season of footy but in saying that I'll be there and competing alongside him and it will be good to come across Sammy.
"Sam Burgess is probably the best lock in the game at the moment and followed by Corey Parker. Corey and Sam Burgess are definitely the benchmark for being a lock.
"Obviously with the older boys their experience means a lot to their teams so that will be a big one for them this year."
Taumalolo missed New Zealand's recent three-Test tour of England due to a knee complaint but in a scary proposition for opposition defences that he regularly tore to shreds in 2015 he has returned in even better shape than last year.
Due to reach 100 NRL games shortly after his 23rd birthday next May, the hulking back-rower is again in search of consistency and started his pre-season by breaking his personal best for the punishing 1.2 kilometre time trial.
"There's not much of a different approach this year, pretty much the same as last year. Just be more consistent," Taumalolo said.
"I did a PB in my 1.2 test so the next step from here is trying to get the new players we have in the squad to gel with last year's premiership team."