Jason Taumalolo stands 191cm and 117kg. Coen Hess is listed as 190cm and 114kg. They can both run like angry rhinos and hit like water buffalo.
Brilliant athletes, big bodies, major talents – but only one has impressed in 2019.
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Taumalolo was not quite at his astonishing best in the Cowboys‘ miserable loss to the Tigers, but he still ran hard, busted tackles and looked engaged. Hess, stuck out at left centre, only touched the ball once in the first dozen minutes. His second carry saw him forced back seven or eight metres. With his physical advantages, that should not be happening.
Confidence is a strange thing. The role of the big bopper in rugby league should be relatively simple, at least with ball in hand: bust tackles, make metres, be incisive. It would be unfair to say that Taumalolo is trying and Hess is not, but only one of them is playing effective footy.
Taumalolo is on a famous 10-year $10 million contract. This year he demonstrated that he could come back from a significant injury and show the mental steel to maintain his astonishing performance level.
Some people (for example, Nick Campton in the Daily Telegraph) believe ‘Lolo’ is the best player in the world. How you measure the brilliance and influence of a blockbusting forward versus the scheming control of Cameron Smith and the blinding running of James Tedesco is moot, but JT13 is certainly in the top bracket.
Most NRL forwards would be satisfied with his raw numbers this year, belying the fact that he has missed six games and had to overcome a knee medial ligament injury. He has averaged 206 metres and 29 tackles per match.
Hess is an entirely different story. For much of 2019 he has looked listless, not helped by the reent shift into the centres where he looks ungainly and unsuited. In 2017 he looked like a future superstar and played two Origin matches for Queensland. In 2018 he was less spectacular but still played the full Origin series. In 2019 he was unwanted by the Maroons.
The once feared edge runner has missed three club games and battled a minor knee injury, but this year he has only run for more than 100m on four occasions. Two of those four have been in the past two weeks playing as a centre, but in neither game has he looked like pushing his side towards victory.
He appears completely uncomfortable defending one in. Last week against the Sharks he allowed Josh Dugan through for a try without laying a hand on him. This week he was woefully out of position for Esan Marsters’ try. In the second half it was noticeable that Hess was eager for work in attack and he had a lot of touches but his efforts were consistently stymied. He averaged 7.5m per run, and his night ended symbolically being bundled into touch by smaller, hungrier opponents.
Where are the tackle busts and post-contact metres, the things that Taumalolo excels in and which give as good an indicator as any of a player’s appetite for the contest? Hess is signed with the Cowboys for another three seasons after this one. They need to help him regain his confidence as a high priority. Being stuck in the number three jumper is not the way to make that happen.
This has been a lousy year for North Queensland. After bottoming out in 2008-2010, the Cowboys were finalists every season from 2011 to 2017, including two Grand Finals and a premiership.
Last year looked like an anomaly. Paul Green’s men finished a lowly thirteenth. Even without the mesmerising gifts of Johnathan Thurston, season 2019 looked promising in prospect, mainly because of the preponderance of outstanding forwards. Rep players Taumalolo, Hess, Matt Scott, Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Gavin Cooper were supported by proven triers like Scott Bolton and John Asiata. Instead, this year has been one to forget, although the forwards are probably the group least to blame for the lack of success.
Taumalolo has continued to be a revelation. With five minutes to go and the Tigers well in control he flew like Superman to collar Robbie Farah and prevent a probable try. There is no doubting Lolo’s input.
Is there a danger that the Cowboys cold kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Will Taumalolo prove to be as resilient as, say, Paul Gallen and maintain his metre-eating ways deep into his thirties, or is he being asked to do too much grunt work, resulting in a focus on quantity rather than quality of carries? So far he has shown incredible fortitude, a human tugboat trying to drag the patchy Cowboys towards success, but shrewd player management may be required to ensure he can maintain his output in seasons to come. If he can have a hard-charging, dangerous Coen Hess taking pressure off him, that will make a big difference. If not, there could be some lean times ahead for North Queensland.