Big Sam aiming for the big time with City
Photo: AJF Photography
While most players’ participation in the NRC followed logistical or geographical lines, big Sam Talakai took a circuitous route towards his involvement in Australia’s burgeoning third tier competition.
A feature of Sydney University’s front row for the last four seasons, Talakai’s obvious pathway was through the Sydney Stars, the side formed through a merging of Sydney Uni and suburban club side Balmain. But when Brisbane City coach Nick Stiles offered the tight head prop a chance to show his wares on the other side of the Tweed, he couldn’t turn it down.
Especially as it was the second time Stiles had come calling.
Back in September 2011, Talakai had just featured in the Shute Shield Grand Final for the Students, starting ahead of now Waratah and Wallaby prop Paddy Ryan, when then Western Force assistant coach Stiles made his first approach.
“I was in deep talks to join the Force and it looked very likely at one point,” Talakai explained to Rugby News. “Nick Stiles was assistant coach under Richard Graham at the time and he contacted me to say they were keen to have me over in Perth. I had a big decision to make.”
Given the relatively small amount of professional opportunities within the Australian game, most players would have bitten Stiles’ arm off but Talakai thought everything through, weighed up his options and politely declined.
“I’d just turned 20-years-old and after only one year of 1st Grade with Uni, even though I’d done some good things, I still felt like I had a lot more to learn,” he reflects. “I backed my scrummaging but I just felt that I needed another year at that level to prove to myself that I could do it consistently.
“I figured that if I didn’t make the Force starting side or match day squad, that I’d be playing club rugby in the Perth competition which I didn’t think would be the best situation for my development at the time. Playing in the Shute Shield, I get to test myself against players with a lot more experience and who have played at a higher standard, week in, week out.”
That extra experience has fuelled Talakai’s belief that he is now ready to make that next step. And while some might argue that he didn’t back his ability when he decided against a move across the Nullarbor, the fact that he was prepared to take a long-term view and recognise that he still had plenty of improvement to come, shows a more level headed and somewhat braver approach.
“I figured that if I was good enough, another opportunity would come and the last two or three years for me have been about developing, not just as a rugby player, but maturing as a person as well,” he says. “I now feel that I’ve scrummaged with and against a lot of different props and I’m a better front rower because of it. I’ve taken a bit of a risk to come up here to Brisbane but surrounding myself in a different environment is not a bad thing either. I’ve been a part of the Sydney University set-up for a while now so it’s good to be a part of something new with different people and it’s just up to me to do all I can to impress and make the most of the opportunity.”
Talakai first took up rugby in Year 7 at Sydney’s Waverley College and went on to play three years in Waverley’s 1sts under current Southern Districts head coach Matt Barr. He also spent a bit of time alongside Waratah, Ben Volavola, in his junior days but almost switched codes in 2010, when the Sydney Roosters offered him a chance to join their Under 20’s set-up.
A call from Sydney Uni Director of Rugby, Jack Farrer, put an end to any flirtation with the 13-man game and his rapid progress through the ranks at Uni Oval No.1 has validated his decision. A technically adept scrummager, it is Talakai’s work around the paddock and sublime handling skills that make him a standout in his position. Standing at 183cm and weighing in at 116 kilos, the recently turned 23-year-old is no shrinking violet when it comes to the physical side of the game either, and as far as props go in Sydney club rugby, he is very much one of the next cabs off the rank for a shot at the big time.
His stint with Brisbane City serves as an unofficial trial for one of the vacant front row spots at the Queensland Reds. With Nick Stiles now holding the reins at City in tandem with his role as Reds assistant coach, he naturally has one eye on NRC success but another on unearthing young talent worthy of a shot at Super Rugby, and he clearly rates Talakai as being worthy of another look.
“I hadn’t really been in touch with ‘Stilesy’ since our conversation a few years ago but when he mentioned the Reds were on the lookout for a few props. I said I’d love the opportunity to give it a crack – and that I wouldn’t say no a second time!” Talakai laughs.
It’s fair to say the experience has been mutually beneficial. Talakai has loved being a part of the NRC, loved the chance to mix it with some of the game’s big names and has flourished in a new environment. “It’s been a very enjoyable experience so far. Getting to play with guys like Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Liam Gill has been great and I’ve just been like a sponge, trying to soak up as much from them as I can,” he enthuses.
By the same token, City have thrived in the new competition, five wins from their seven matches putting them in firm contention for a finals spot. And while there has been plenty to admire from the performances of players such as Samu Kerevi and Chris Kuridrani in the backs, it is City’s pack that has perhaps been the cornerstone of their success and Talakai has played an influential role.
After kicking-off the competition in a Thursday night clash against – who else? – Sydney Stars, “There was a bit of chat from Paddy Ryan and Jeremy Tilse but it wasn’t too bad,” he smiles, he’s now started in three of the team’s matches and figured prominently in his stints off the bench, most notably against Queensland Country in round six’s Andy Purcell Cup derby at Ballymore.
Finding themselves surprisingly 13-0 down, City used their forwards to springboard a pathway back into the contest and it was their dominance at scrum time that turned the tide in their favour. Starting tighthead Sef Faagase played a starring role and City didn’t skip a beat when Talakai took over for the second half, maintaining the rage and helping them go on to record a 29-13 victory.
Having an array of talented young front rowers is certainly a nice problem for Nick Stiles to have. His approach has been to give everyone a fair crack at the whip through the regular rounds with a view to finalising a preferred starting XV by the time finals footy is just around the corner. That time is fast approaching.
“Stilesy explained to all of us at the start of the season that he wanted a chance to see everyone play and the rotation in the front row is no different,” says Talakai. “We have a young but enthusiastic bunch and we’ve learnt a lot especially after that Melbourne Rising clash.” (a 60pt humbling at the hands of the NRC pacesetters). “We’ve had to overcome adversity in this short period and now it’s all about building and performing consistently each game.”
That consistency took a hit last Friday night when the Greater Sydney Rams caught City cold, a sterling attacking display seeing the Rams chalk up a superb 56-29 win over their more vaunted opponents. It proved to be a night of double disappointment for Talakai, forced from the field in the second half with an ankle injury that ruled him out of last night’s comprehensive 77-26 win over North Harbour Rays. But coach Stiles saw enough to reinforce his burgeoning opinion of Sam’s progress.
“He’s tracking really well,” said Stiles at the final whistle. “We’ve been changing most of our props around at half-time but I thought he was someone that put his hand up in that first half and we left him out there for the second half. He’s showing improvement each week and that’s been the thing that I spoke to him about. I don’t expect him to be the finished product right now but I wanted to see how he can adapt and learn.
“His scrummaging, while it is very strong, we felt at the start of the tournament that there were a few things he could work on like his body height and his body shape and he’s made a big change and we’ve been very happy with him. I think the time is now for him to put his hand up for a Super Rugby position.”
Given the lucrative pot at the end of that particular rainbow, Stiles was understandably non-commital regarding Talakai’s chances of staying in Brisbane beyond the NRC. But he’s certainly in the mix.
“There’s definitely no promises, we’ve got a crop of really good young guys in the front row, Pettowa Paraka, Sef Faagase and Sammy as well as Haydn Hirsimaki from the Queensland Country side and it’s just a matter now of who puts their hand up and how guys bounce back from a bit of adversity as well because Super Rugby is bloody tough,” Stiles continued.
“If you’re packing down as a tighthead prop in Super Rugby you know what life is about and while you don’t want those losses, it’s good to see how these guys handle it and you learn a bit more about them. It’s easy when you’re winning but once you get a few losses in Super Rugby, you want to see guys who are going to fight hard and they’re the ones you want to pick in teams to go into battle for you.”
Whatever the outcome at the end of this inaugural NRC, whether City can go on to lift the title and presumably beat the all conquering Rising on the way – “We’d love another crack at them,” Talakai purred – and whether that all important Super Rugby contract comes his way or not, you get the feeling big Sam will come away from the experience with absolutely no regrets at all.
“They’re good people at City, they’ve been very welcoming and I think I’ve fitted in pretty comfortably. I’m happy that I’ve made the change and I feel very blessed to be a part of this group.”
Best of luck Sam.
First published by Rugby News on October 6th, 2014