JT v Cotter: It’s not yet time to put Taumalolo out to pasture, but the Cowboys need to rethink what he is
North Queensland’s fate has been tied to that of Jason Taumalolo for the more than half a decade now.
The inspirational Tongan took over from Johnathan Thurston in 2018, having signed a monster deal that seemed to set the club up for the foreseeable future.
At the time signing the then-Dally M Medallist to a ten-year deal raised eyebrows, but was seen as an attempt to build the club around a local junior who looked likely to dominate for years to come.
It’s hardly been a failure, as Taumalolo has been consistently one of the club’s best players, but in hindsight, it does look like something of a misstep to invest that much salary cap into exactly the sort of player no longer valued by the rules.
In 2017, almost every lock was an extra middle: the World Cup Final of that year saw Josh McGuire and Sam Burgess face off, while Tui Kamikamica, Adam Blair and JT himself also featured there in that tournament. In Origin, it was McGuire v Tyson Frizell.
Then the six again rule came in, destroyed the dominance of the big man and heavily incentivised having an extra set of hands on the footy.
Now, the Cowboys are an outlier, one of the last teams not to play with a ball-playing lock – at least, not regularly.
Last season, there was a bit of a change of heart. Taumalolo started the season as a lock but ended it as a prop, with a decent period off the interchange in the middle.
Into his place came Reuben Cotter, who might be close to the Cowboys’ most important player in 2024.
The Queensland and Kangaroos star has gone from hooker to bench to front row to lock, and it would seem sensible that he is kept there going forward to maximise the amount of time he spends on the field – and to get the most out of Taumalolo either as a starting middle or as a rotation option.
To understand why coach Todd Payten should make this change permanent, it’s worth looking back over the numbers to work out how Taumalolo’s role in the team has changed over the years.
Of course, that requires a brief introduction to the sample, and what limitations it might have.
First up, there’s the not insignificant factor of the rules: We’ve taken JT’s number from 2016 to 2023, but there was a massive overhaul in 2020 with the Six Again rule that seemed almost designed to stop big guys flourishing.
There’s also the change of coach, from Paul Green to Todd Payten with a year of Dean Young in the middle. Obviously, each coach plays their own way and can use individuals differently.
The side as a whole has also changed, from a Grand Final level outfit to near-Wooden Spooners and back to the top four, with other years of meh in between. It’s a system sport, so having everyone else around you play badly invariably affects your performance too.
Fun as it would be for stats nerds if coaches never changed, the rules never changed and sample sizes were perfect forever, that’s not really how rugby league (or life) works, so has to be acknowledged off the top.
Caveats aside, here it is: Jason Taumalolo, the peak, decline and (potentially) renaissance.
In 2016, when Taumalolo was the best player in the comp, he averaged 52 minutes per game playing as a lock, which was totally fine because a lock then was, basically, a prop.
That went up to 62 minutes in 2017, stayed there in 2018 and peaked at 64 minutes in 2019 before dropping back down in increments over the years to last year’s 48 minutes, a new low.
This made sense from a coaching perspective, at least in the short term.
Here was your best player, in a forwards’ game, who you’d just paid top dollar to extend for a decade. Better get the bloke on the field and keep him there, right?
Well, not really.
Taumalolo’s levels of activity rose, increasing his volume numbers to new heights, and he did briefly expand into that space by maintaining his effectiveness across more work.
That however, plummeted after the rule changes in 2021 – when JT was also injured for a period and the Cowboys were historically bad across the board – and then got worse into 2022, even when North Queensland were good again.
All the markers of how effectively a middle does their job in attack cratered: post-contact metres went down, play the ball speeds went up, metres per run (MPR) were low (even when the entire league was making more metres) and tackle breaks evaporated.
That coincided with drops in defensive metrics, too. Taumalolo made fewer tackles at a worse efficiency as the years went by, bottoming out last year at a historically low 85%,
Off the ball, things weren’t any better as his supports and decoys went down to the lowest they have been since the Dally M year.
The stats show a player in serious decline, albeit one coming off an untouchable peak of middle forwards in 2016. Even so, it was a bloke on a million dollars who was, by no metric, worth that level of cash.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Since playing more like an impact prop, things began to look good again.
JT’s 11 MPR is exceptional, the best of any regular middle in the comp and by a distance, proving that as a ball runner, he remains elite.
That has allowed the Tongan to almost match his 2019 yardage numbers despite playing 15 minutes less than he did in that year.
His play the ball is back to where it was in 2016 but his offload has been completely put away – and yet, somehow, he passes more than ever and takes fewer hit-ups, too.
It’s as if the 13-as-a-prop that made him great has screaming to come back, but the Cowboys are still asking their battering ram to have a subtle touch.
We hear a lot about players being asked to ‘simplify their game’, without much context to what that actually means, but looking at Taumalolo’s data, it seems pretty clear that he needs to do exactly that: better a really elite ball-playing prop than a not-that-good sort-of ball-playing lock.
In 2016, when essentially playing as a third prop, 95% of his touches were hit ups – pretty much as they were by the end of 2023, too, when actually named as a middle.
On top of that, his defence has gotten progressively worse as the years go on, as has his game involvement – right up until the point he started playing like a prop again.
The late season experiment, then, is one that Payten should continue.
With his main man set to turn 31 in May, it’s reasonable to expect that he will continue to decline physically, but that can be managed smartly if the coach restructures his attack to make the most of the obvious talent that Taumalolo has.
The question might be who steps into the break. Cotter, of course, will be the new 13 and would benefit from the ability to play more minutes.
He got 53 per game last year, the most of any Cowboys forward, but could certainly do more.
The Cowboys used Jordan McLean and Coen Hess as starting middles last year with four bench forwards in Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Griffin Neame, Kulikefu Finefeuiaki and, of course, Taumalolo.
If they were to extend Cotter’s minutes, it would allow for a serious rolling barrage off the bench.
Both Taunoa-Brown and another option, Mitch Dunn, rate very highly for Involvement Rate – an advanced stat that rates actions on a per-minute basis, ideal for measuring impact subs – while Finefeuiaki has the most offloads and fastest play the ball of any Cowboy, as well as the next best MPR behind Taumalolo.
If Payten is to maintain the same bench arrangement that he had at the end of last year, he could play a power game that few other sides would be able to match.
This is already a superstrength of the Cowboys, who had the second best MPR collectively last year behind the Panthers, but one that they largely failed to capitalise upon.
If Taumalolo was freed from the other parts of his game, he could bring back his offload – North Queensland were second last for that overall – and give their halves more broken play to work with.
The numbers are clear that the late season version of Taumalolo is the better one, at least at the age that he is now, and could allow their talisman to add an Indian summer to an already stellar career, while also paving a way for Cotter to go to the next level.