Zeb Taia in action for the Titans against Penrith on Sunday.

Zeb Taia was as fit and as strong as any other time in his career when a text message from St Helens coach Keiron Cunningham changed everything.

Determined to contribute to another successful season at the Titans and convince the club to activate a clause for a further year, the approach from Cunningham offering a three-year deal in the Super League caught Taia completely by surprise.

News had surfaced that the Titans had signed promising St Helens back-rower Joe Greenwood for the 2018 and 2019 seasons and Cunningham wasted little time in finding a replacement, dangling a carrot that Taia admitted was too good to knock back.

 


With his future in the NRL beyond 2017 uncertain, the 32-year-old wrestled with the decision of whether to uproot his wife Nikki and two young daughters Zali and Haven less than 18 months after returning from three years in France but said the terms of the deal gave his family a sense of security he might not otherwise have had.

Taia, who negotiated the terms of the deal himself, informed his Titans teammates last Tuesday of his decision to return to Super League with St Helens officially announcing the deal following the completion of the World Club Challenge game early Monday morning.

After playing every game of the regular season last year Taia leaves the NRL with 131 games for the Eels, Knights and Titans and admits he wishes the circumstances of his exit could have been different.

"It's not the way I wanted to go out that's for sure," Taia told NRL.com.

"I'm proud of the way things turned out last year and I was ready to do it again this year but obviously that opportunity was taken away from me.

"I never had an inkling that anything was happening until I got a message on the Friday before the [Auckland] Nines from Keiron Cunningham asking if we could have a chat.

"That was the first I knew anything was up.

"I thought he might want me for '18 and '19 but he just went straight to the point. Greenwood had signed here for '18 and '19 and the Titans obviously wanted him on board so he pitched it to me that if they were to write up a contract for the rest of this year and another two years would I look at it as a possibility?

"The Titans said that I was more than welcome to stay, that was it. I was more than welcome to stay and see out the 2017 season but they couldn't say what might happen beyond that. And that's a fair call, that's just being honest.

"They didn't push me out, it's just the fact that Saints came to me with a really good offer. It had to take a really good contract for me to up and leave the Coast."

Thanks for showing me heaps of love @saints1890!!! I'm looking forward to putting on the New colours soonโšช๏ธ๐Ÿ”ดโšช๏ธ๐Ÿ”ด!!! I'm grateful ๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿพfor the opportunity that has risen in front of me and my family and can't wait to get there and rip in for a club that has so much proud history... Special thanks to my team mates at the @gctitans for showing me support in this tough decision... at the end of the day it's a tough business and I had every intention to be a Titan for the 2017 season but opportunities pop up and this was too hard to refuse... much love to the fans @titanslegion that have embraced me as one of there own over the 2016 season...I hope this current squad brings you success over the next couple of years cause you guys deserve it!!! ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿพ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿพ #thrunthru #36 #coysaints #newbeginnings #superleague

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Titans coach Neil Henry admitted that he was somewhat surprised that a player swap could occur at such a late stage but said that he couldn't stand in the way of Taia securing his long-term future in the game.

"He wanted to prove that he could play at the NRL level again after being over in the Super League for a few seasons and he came over here and proved that he could," Henry said.

"He was a consistent performer for us and also a really good leader around the place as a senior player.

"Being the age that he is he probably didn't think he'd get offered a three-year deal to go and play and with that security for himself, his wife Nikki and the kids and I couldn't stand in the way of that given that we couldn't guarantee him more years here.

"We'll miss Zeb's seniority and his leadership that's for sure and very much a club and a team player but other guys will have to step up.

"I certainly wish him and Nikki all the best. He had a big impact last year and certainly was a big part in us making the eight for the first time in several seasons."

Despite St Helens' willingness to sign Taia to a deal that will take him through until past his 35th birthday, the former Kiwi Test representative said that his fondness for the Titans and the Gold Coast made it such a difficult decision to leave.

"I loved every minute of playing with the Titans and that's what was really tearing me to pieces, the fact that I gave so much to the club last year and they could even think about tossing my name up in a possible trade with a young kid from England," said Taia, who hopes to be in England in time to play in St Helens' Round 3 clash with Wakefield.

"I trained so hard this pre-season and Neil [Henry] and the coaching staff knew it and I couldn't wait to play a trial game and then it all rattled me.

"There are a million things going through your head and you don't know what decision to make.

"I really wanted to see out the 2017 season but Saints were just showing too much love.

"It's a great club with a proud history and I'm looking forward to getting there and ripping in."