Jason Taumalolo still chasing his dreams
It's not always complimentary to be compared to Sonny Bill Williams, so an aspiring NRL star insists he very much his own man, at just 19 years of age.
Jason Taumalolo was anointed as the next SBW soon after becoming the youngest player to debut for the North Queensland Cowboys, in 2010.
The Auckland-born impact forward was only 17 years, two months and 21 days old when he came off the bench against the Bulldogs.
It took almost a year for him to feature in first grade again but when he was named in the Kiwis squad for the 2012 Anzac test at Eden Park, then-captain Benji Marshall predicted he was a superstar in the making.
Taumalolo was ultimately 19th man. He spent the week training, soaking up the atmosphere and then watching Shaun Johnson's test debut from the stands.
After the match Taumalolo took the same flight home as Kiwi turned Kangaroo James Tamou but unlike the front-rower he struggled to establish himself in the Cowboys' top line-up, despite featuring in 17 of a potential 26 games.
Taumalolo did time in the Queensland and NYC Cup competitions and when Townsville hosted a trans-Tasman test last October he played for the Junior Kiwis side trounced by their Australian counterparts.
It would be understandable if Taumalolo was getting ahead of himself - and developing a swollen head to boot - because Mal Meninga was keen to coax him into the Queensland State of Origin system last year.
Taumalolo eventually pledged allegiance to his birthplace. Originally from Mangere, South Auckland, he was tormented at school because of his intimidating size, and left New Zealand at age 13.
So far this season Taumalolo has used his size to effect as a constant on the Cowboys' interchange bench, thanks to a demanding off-season in the tropical north.
Conquering Castle Hill is one of the toughest training assignments available in the NRL off-season and the Townsville landmark certainly contributed to Taumalolo's more muscular frame.
"In the past he wasn't that tough at training, but he's taken it to a new level," said Kangaroos, Queensland and Cowboys playmaker Johnathan Thurston.
Taumalolo is 5kg lighter at 110kg, gradual weight loss that has increased his speed and mobility.
The quietly spoken Kiwi of Tongan extraction, who had his parents join him in Townsville, has always been equipped with explosive power, and now former Olympic sprinter Paul Di Bella has enhanced his reaction speed off the mark with a view of beating defenders with footwork.
"The main thing was keeping up with game speed, trying to get my fitness up to another level," Taumalolo told Sunday News before heading to Auckland for tomorrow's fourth-round clash with the New Zealand Warriors at Mt Smart.
"These guys have pushed me to my limit, I've never been fitter in my career."
Defence coach Peter Ryan - a former Brisbane Broncos back-rower who also played No 8 for the Brumbies and Southland - has devoted plenty of energy tightening Taumalolo's defensive technique, a self-confessed deficiency.
"It was pretty terrible last year and I guess that's what kept me out of the squad," said Taumalolo, who is contracted until the end of 2015.
He defends on the right edge with halfback Michael Morgan, former Warriors centre Brent Tate and wing Ashley Graham.
"The defensive aspect of his game was probably where he needed the most improvement and his first-up contact is better," Ryan said.
"We're fortunate he picks up information really quickly.
"Even in a losing side [34-6 against Newcastle on Monday] he was one of our better players with his control in the wrestle and his groundwork."
While young talent often needs to be handled with kid gloves - Ben Barba and Josh Dugan have had their issues already in 2013 - Ryan says Taumalolo is a joy to mentor.
"He's the sort of kid who's very coachable, that's the best way to describe it because everything he's done so far he's improved in."
Ryan expects Taumalolo to sidestep the potential pitfalls for players who are earmarked for greatness - those who have delusions of grandeur and entitlement.
"That can happen but not with him, though. He's not that type of kid. He's not big-headed at all, he's very down to earth, very approachable," Ryan said.
Taumalolo played 57 minutes against the Knights, the length of shift that should now be commonplace for the leaner, meaner SBW clone.
"At the end of 2012 he was a muscular bloke but he still had a bit of puppy fat," Ryan said.
"That's dispersed over the pre-season. He's improved his diet and his control in whatever he does off the field.
"You can see him now, he's just a chiselled athlete and that's why his game's improved."
Taumalolo was listed as making 27 tackles against the Knights on Monday night, missed none and carried the ball 78 metres.
He wasn't exactly an offensive threat on the right edge but Ryan is still sold on his worth to the Cowboys attack: "Jason runs over bigger men because of his pure strength."
Ryan winces when asked how Taumalolo measures against SBW - 24 games into his NRL career.
"I don't like using that comparison," he said, before contradicting himself.
"He's got every attribute. He's got a great passing game, he can offload before the tackle, after the tackle. His defensive work is only going to improve.
"Jason's more dynamic, I believe, than Sonny Bill has ever been.
"Sonny Bill uses his speed and agility. Jason uses speed, power and agility. He's just so big and strong."
Taumalolo carries the new-SBW moniker around as comfortably as two defenders, and doesn't quite see the comparison.
"It's pretty exciting to be labelled as the next Sonny Bill but his achievements have been huge.
"I'd love one day to have his status as one of New Zealand rugby league's best exports but I'm different to Sonny, I like to play my own style."
Fans can draw their own conclusions when the Sydney Rosters play the Cowboys during round 10 in Townsville, a challenge Taumalolo is looking forward to.
And ideally they will eventually be in the same Kiwis team, possibly at the World Cup in the UK and France this year.
Taumalolo still has fond memories of his first involvement in a Kiwis camp.
"I was star-struck to be with players like Benji, Simon Mannering, big Manu . . . superstars like that in the game. Just staying in the same hotel was a great experience. Hopefully later down the track I can do it again."
Taumalolo is still eligible to play for the Junior Kiwis this year, though he has set his sights higher, while keeping his feet on the ground.
"I definitely want to help New Zealand defend the World Cup. That would be a dream come true. I guess that's far away from where I am at the moment."