League bad boy Arana Taumata has had more lives in the NRL than any other player. Chris Barclay charts the progress of the Kiwi who is now seeking redemption at the foot of the Blue Mountains.
He wore a fluorescent vest but Arana Taumata had drawn attention to himself long before he was instructed to direct traffic around a construction site in Sydney's inner west.
His workmates remembered the headlines, so by the time the 23-year-old turned up to rotate the "Stop, Go" sign – a symbol synonymous with his sporting career – the Kiwi was recognised by blokes building 380 units in Burwood, despite having played just 12 first-grade games in seven years as a professional footballer.
"They all read the papers so they know what happened," said Taumata, as he reflected on a chastening, though valuable, experience in a world alien to life in the NRL.
It is some story and one to be continued in search of a happy ending.
Scouted by Wayne Bennett's Brisbane Broncos as a 14-year-old in Wainuiomata, Taumata left Wellington wide-eyed two days after his next birthday in 2005 and was soon raising eyebrows at the club's Red Hill headquarters.
He was finally banished in 2006 for persistent ill-discipline. Taumata faced the same predicament at the Sydney Roosters and Canterbury Bulldogs, where he made his first-grade debut in 2008.
The Melbourne Storm were the next club unable to harness his undoubted talents. Stints at the Wests Tigers and North Queensland were brief, though at least Taumata left on his own terms, citing a lack of game time alongside Benji Marshall and homesickness soon after arriving in Townsville.
And then the lowest point of his sporadic career occurred at the foot of the Blue Mountains in June last year.
Taumata lifted a prescription pad from the office of Penrith Panthers' doctor David Abrahams and made a bungled attempt to obtain valium from a Parramatta pharmacy, actions that could have seen him sacked by a fifth club.
Phil Gould, just a month into his role as the Panthers general manager, could have cut Taumata as he started to remodel the club with new head coach Ivan Cleary.
But intervention from Australian league legend Artie Beetson convinced Gould to be a saint for the habitual sinner and strive to save Taumata from himself.
One of Beetson's last humanitarian acts before he died of a heart attack last December was to phone Gould and plead: "Please, Gus, don't sack him."
That conversation still resonates with Taumata as he sits in a sombre Panthers dressing room at ANZ Stadium.
"Artie had a soft spot for me. He helped out a lot when I first moved to Bondi (the Roosters) and when I hit rock bottom last year ... I thank the big man up there for asking Gus (Gould) to help me out."
Gould heeded the call, organised a psychiatrist to address Taumata's depression and then tackled him with tough love because, although he was sympathetic, it was clear the oversized kid had to learn the hard way.
After being feted by a succession of coaches despite his misdemeanours, Taumata's rehabilitation started with Gould placing football off limits for the remainder of 2011.
The judicial system eventually imposed an 18-month good behaviour bond after Taumata pleaded guilty; Gould thought hard labour was a more appropriate sentence.
So former Kiwis back rower Mark Horo, a mentor for Panthers' juniors, found employment for Taumata in construction and hobnail boots replaced the footy cleats.
Not surprisingly, "it was an eye-opener".
"I'd been training with the top 25 (players) since I was 15," Taumata said.
"Having that time away from footy, to see how other people survive and how they work every day .... they wake up at 5 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning.
"It was a new perspective on life and definitely humbling for me."
Not so long ago beers would form part of the pre-match ritual – even Jesse Ryder at his worst would struggle to match Taumata's blatant unprofessionalism.
But his colleague's work ethic on site rubbed off on Taumata, who is now among the Panthers' most enthusiastic trainers.
"I've changed a lot the way I do things away from the field. It's part of growing up I guess," he said, after playing off the bench against South Sydney last weekend.
Taumata made his Panthers debut amid a heavy defeat to the Gold Coast Titans in round 15 – his first NRL game since 2010 with the Cowboys – and although his club is struggling he could not be in a better place.
"I've been working hard. Gus pretty much put down the guidelines of what I had to do. It was stern. There were tears at the meeting. He gave me a way back and this is where I am.
"Gus has been right behind me watching every little step I take. I'm loving life at the moment. I've got a little baby girl, my family is very supportive.
"I've got people helping me now. It's not like I'm by myself."
Of course, Taumata never really was boy lonesome when he was the cocksure rookie sharing the gym with Darren Lockyer, Karmichael Hunt and Petero Civoniceva.
"I used to live in a hostel with all the boys. You know what that's like," he said. "It's going out and partying."
Taumata succumbed to peer pressure, and was his own worst enemy but is it any wonder he felt 10 foot tall and bulletproof – not 1.87 metres high and self-destructive – when the likes of Craig Bellamy and Tim Sheens were not deterred by his reputation.
Ultimately it was Dad who became the father figure. After cringing at their eldest boy's indiscretions from back home in Wellington, Dave and Tracey realised they had to relocate to Sydney.
"To have my family surrounding around me, going home to my little brothers, them making me laugh . I didn't have that over the past five or six years," Taumata said.
Absentee parents and distant contact with his four brothers and sister contributed, he said, to his wicked ways.
"I was making selfish decisions. I was a lost soul in a way. I didn't have my family with me."
Now at an age when he should be flatting, Taumata, his partner Annika, and their three-month old daughter, Maya, are under the same roof as his mum, dad and their other children in Constitution Hill.
"It's been a massive sacrifice for my parents, especially for Dad," Taumata said. "He had a TV job in New Zealand, now he's on the building site."
Little Maya is another stabilising factor.
"She's brought me back to earth. I don't have a lot of time for myself now. My motivation is a contract for my family," said Taumata, whose deal expires at the end of the season.
He started the year training with the Blacktown Workers' boys then upgraded to NSW Cup with the Windsor Wolves and now the goal is to re-sign with the Panthers long-term and ideally play first grade for another decade.
"I'm so excited to see where my footy's going to go. I feel like I can get better and better," said Taumata, who is a standoff by trade but is willing to run at fullback, lock, anywhere he can.
These days he wants to play what's in front of him but he realises that chequered past means any career goals will be associated with a question or exclamation mark.
"It's been well publicised. All I can do now is grab my opportunity and work hard every week," he said.
"The footy has always been the easy part for me. The problem was my life away from footy and I've cleaned that up. It's just about maintaining that I guess."
Geographically, Taumata is now isolated from the distractions of Kings Cross and Bondi Beach but self-control is still a necessity.
"If you want to go in there, you will. You can get caught up anywhere, mate, wherever you are. It's about the decisions that you make. It's about who you surround yourself with," Taumata added, before offering himself as an example of how not to play the game.
"If there's any young blokes out there that want a hand, I'd be happy to guide them the right way."
The former traffic controller's directions are straightforward: steer clear of those dead-end streets.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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