Titans halfback Ash Taylor.

Johns to help Taylor deal with hype and expectation

A life lost, a 1500km and 17-hour road trip and a calling to be with family, on the eve of his last match against boyhood hero Johnathan Thurston; this week puts into perspective the pressure of expectations that has threatened to sink Ash Taylor's season of hope.

On Monday the 23-year-old Titan attended the funeral, in Lightning Ridge, of his cousin Zac, who died, age 25. It was a commitment he had to make because, typically, he felt he had to be there for his family.

During the eight-hour drive back to the Gold Coast that evening, the experience reinforced to the man who has had to carry Matthew Johns' prediction that he will become the best player in the game, that there is more in life to worry about than failing to live up to others' expectations.

And he knows he has done too much of that in 2018.

"There's been a lot of pressure on me to perform, especially this year, which hasn't worked out the best for me I don't think," an introspective Taylor said.

"While footy is important, it's not life or death. There's always next week in footy.

Titans half Ash Taylor.
Titans half Ash Taylor. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"You should never lose sight of family, or how privileged I am to do what I do.

"I wanted to be there for my family [by attending Zac's funeral] because they are always there for me in tough times."

There were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his cousin's death. And the tragedy reinforced to Taylor the importance of maintaining mental health irrespective of whether you're an NRL player or not.

"Sure it put a bit of pressure on myself (the two-day travel ordeal) but I feel I have to give more back to my family because they've done so much for me growing up.

"I have been thinking about it a lot lately, about giving back to my family a lot more.

"It's tough during the season, especially when you're not playing good football and you want to stay here [on the Gold Coast] and get stuck into your game. But I need to take a bit of down time and think about my family more sometimes."

Taylor played last Saturday against the Storm, headed off for the 540km six-hour trip to his home town of St George on Sunday to catch up with relatives, before heading down the highway on Monday for the 230km, 2.5-hour drive to Lightning Ridge for the funeral, then enduring the 800km drive home.

With a player's day off on Tuesday, it was Wednesday before he started preparing for a very special last appearance of a tough season.

He admits the second half of 2018 has not been anywhere near as great as the first half when Johns put the almighty tag on him and Taylor himself started talking about his hopes of playing for Queensland this season.

Uncustomary errors and lack of consistency and nailing 'the moments' have crept in. Without an experienced halves partner next to him, he took on the burden of the whole team's playmaking – and didn't cope like he wanted to nor how his team needed him to.

Titans halfback Ash Taylor.
Titans halfback Ash Taylor. ©Jason O'Brien/NRL Photos

The irony is coach Garth Brennan is set to call on his mate Matthew Johns to help put Taylor back on track in the off-season with some private coaching. He had one session with the former Newcastle international five-eighth early in the season.

A quick flashback: Johns was telling anyone who cared to listen a few weeks into the season that he believed "whether it be in one year, two or three years, Ash Taylor will be the best player in the world one day".

"There are expectations every week and as a young half I've copped a lot more than just about anyone else, especially when we haven't been winning games," Taylor reflected, while being too polite to say he wished he hadn't received that almighty prediction 40 games into his NRL career.

"I was better at the start of the season when I was worrying more about my game. But when shit goes up creek, I was taking it on all myself and doubting myself as a leader of the team when things weren't working. There was a lot of miscommunication going on, on the field.

"I have to stay more relaxed and just get my things right first.

"So the last few weeks I've just been worrying about myself and getting my running game back and my kicking game on point and that's when I play my best footy.

"If I had someone like Matty Johns involved, it would be awesome. He was a great half and has a lot of wise words; he knows what he's talking about.

"I've had a few talks with him [on the phone] and one session with him and he gave me a few tips on different plays to run. He's got a lot of knowledge and a lot of respect for us halves."

Former Knights international Matthew Johns.
Former Knights international Matthew Johns. ©Paul Barkley/NRL Photos

The other Johns, Immortal Andrew, has also had a few chats with Taylor this season, when they have come across each other at functions. He has been more candid with him, telling Taylor he had to be fitter and mentally tougher to be more consistent and cut his errors.

"Andrew also gave me some wise words," Taylor said.

"I can always get fitter; being a bigger half it's a bit hard – I do have to train hard.

"The errors I have been making, like kicking out on the full and some drop balls, come from a lack of concentration.

"And I was trying to come up with plays that weren't on; trying to play outside the box and invent new things when I didn't have to.

Ash Taylor with Johnathan Thurston in Maroons camp in 2017.
Ash Taylor with Johnathan Thurston in Maroons camp in 2017. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"I was putting too much pressure on myself, trying to do too much, trying too hard and when I tried things, it wasn't working.

"I plan to have a massive pre-season, come back in better nick than last year and be consistent.

"It's mostly a consistency thing with my game; I need more consistency on and off the field."

And that brings us back to Taylor's penchant for worrying, over-thinking, over-trying and never wanting to let people down off the field. Club insiders tell of his regular trips to the country or interstate on his days off to play his part for his Indigenous culture, family and being a role model for kids.

It's a wonderful aspect of the personality of both Taylor, and the man he wants to emulate – his man-of-the-moment opposing No.7 at Cbus Super Stadium at 5.30pm this Saturday.

Taylor says it is an "awesome honour to share Thurston's last match in front of a sell-out crowd, although he is quick to state: "It's not just his farewell, we're playing the game too."

And he admits it would mean a lot to leave JT with a good last impression of him, as a fellow humble Indigenous man who has always idolised the Immortal in waiting.

When asked what was the one Thurston attribute he would most like to emulate, he replied: "His ability to always be on the ball.

"He's always got something on rather than waiting back for something to unfold in front of him. That's what I have done too much this year, fade in and out of games, as Garth has mentioned.

"I have to stay in games and stay on the ball and be ready for anything." 

There's no better time or place to start than this Saturday at Cbus Super Stadium.

 

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