Taupau challenging perceptions: 'Best muscle to exercise is your brain'
Martin Taupau spends an hour before each game getting his hair braided, prefers red wine to beer and would rather be studying for his bachelor of business degree than lifting weights in the gym.
While he has set himself the goal of winning the Dally M prop of the year award and helping Manly to a premiership this season, Taupau is also challenging the image of front-rowers.
"The best muscle to exercise is your brain," says the 28-year-old New Zealand Test star, who attends lectures at UTS’s Ultimo campus one night per week after training with the Sea Eagles at Narrabeen.
This is the same player who two years ago was considering competing in bodybuilding or power-lifting events after earning notoriety as the NRL’s strongest man by deadlifting 310kg during a weights session.
Taupau is also considered one of the most intimidating props in the Telstra Premiership but he has worked hard on discipline after incurring a fourth judiciary charge in less than two years at the start of last season.
"A lot of people have that perception of me as this really big, bad scary wolf but I have changed the way I conduct myself on the field, and I am doing a lot of things to progress and develop my life off the field," Taupau said.
A schoolboy fullback before he "fell in love" with weights at Endeavour Sports High, Taupau believes his aggressive style of play helped establish him in the NRL after working his way through the junior grades at Canterbury.
It also earned him the "Marty Kapow" nickname, which he has now adopted for his social media accounts and is looking at other ways to market.
However, Taupau’s coaches recognised there was more to his game and in 2010 he captained the Bulldogs under 20s and a Junior Kiwis team which included Jason Taumalolo, Shaun Johnson and Dean Whare.
He also represented the Australian Schoolboys after moving to Sydney with his family as a 10-year-old and could have played State of Origin but didn’t want to give up the chance to wear the Kiwis jersey.
After starting out playing fullback, wing or centre, he progressed to the second row and eventually became a prop – developing a clear perspective about the position.
"The way I look at it, rugby league is like a game of chess and every player has their own moves that only they can do," he says.
"For example, there is a perception of front-rowers that they can’t kick so that is why you have your No.6, 7 and 9 who do that sort of stuff. Front-rowers have our own individual role and I like the opportunities to create a quick play-the-ball, increasing the speed of play and giving opportunities for the spine to jump on the back of that.
"You have got to move your pieces and utilise them in order to win the game so you have got to have a lot of footy smarts. It is not your traditional 1980s game, where you give the ball to a front-rower to run up and then you kick it. The game is so much more about tactics now and knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it, as well."
After topping the NRL for offloads with 73 last year, Taupau is again leading the statistic after the opening four rounds with 17 and is also second for run metres (689.5m) and sixth for post-contact metres (207.4m) per game.
"Last year I had a personal goal that I wanted to be the Dally M prop of the year," Taupau said. "Unfortunately, the suspensions I got ruined my chances. I was very disappointed so it is something I obviously want to do.
"I want to be one of the best front-rowers in the game, if not the best, and also one of the best players in our team at Manly. It’s all about development and progression, and I feel like I have come a long way."
Off the field, Taupau is also looking to improve himself and last year he enrolled in a bachelor of business course at UTS after developing an interest in marketing and economics.
He has established #TeamKapow on social media platforms for people who share similar values and is looking at other ways to market his brand.
"Rugby league players are brands in themselves and I want to get a better understanding of that," he said.
"Even if you have only played 10 or 15 NRL games, you are still a brand and that is why you can’t go out and parade yourself as a lunatic."
After previous jobs as a builder's labourer, removalist and erecting marquees for a party hire company, Taupau envisages a career after football in marketing or player welfare.
While he enjoys competing with teammates in the gym, he has all but ruled out taking up powerlifting or bodybuilding.
"I’d prefer to be at uni studying something than in the gym lifting weights."
In fact, so serious is Taupau that he is already contemplating cutting his hair when he joins the workforce.
"It has been seven years of growing this and I maintain it pretty well," he said. "Braiding my hair takes about an hour and I spent a fair bit more time washing it and putting coconut oil or argon oil in it.
"A lot of the boys ask if I am going to cut my hair and I always respond no but I was thinking the other week that when I am back in the workforce I might have to trim it.
"I don’t know how I am going to go with that, but I am all about the image so I need to be presentable and approachable."