Currently wearing the shirt of Featherstone Rovers, former Samoan international Misi Taulapapa and his team mates are in the midst of a highly impressive season and still sit in the top four of the Betfred Championship. When Get ’em Onside met the 36-year-old on a sunny morning shortly after Rovers’ recent 52-4 victory over Barrow Raiders, he was unsurprisingly in good spirits following the win – especially after a dodgy run of form.
“We’re not at panic stations despite four defeats on the trot,” he stated. “The two wins we have got back just show that we are still there, we are still in the mix for the top four and, if you look at our schedule for the rest of the season, our two toughest games – discounting Toronto in the last game – are Halifax and London and if we win them, by the time the last game comes we should know where we are,” the former NRL three quarter explained. “We’re still building on the recent wins [Rovers have since gone on to win away at Sheffield] and get some continuity into the team.” One thing which Taulapapa admitted had affected the team during their winless run was injuries but, still sitting in third in the Championship, he believes the team still have room to grow. “We still know that we need to be a lot better, and we know we can be, but I reckon we will get there at the end,” he expressed.
What makes Rovers’ lofty league position all the more impressive is the fact that they consistently challenge at the top end of the table and, this year, seem set for a top four finish despite competing against full time opponents while they themselves are a part time club. When asked how the club find it in themselves to set about beating full time opponents, Taulapapa explained that the club sometimes train up to four times a week in preparation for matches. While some players don’t perhaps enjoy training that many times in the week, the Auckland born centre insisted that the time spent preparing is worth it. “To play with the full-timers we have to put in the time – sometimes we have to put in long nights – but it pays off, too,” he told Get ’em Onside. “We do put in a lot of time for a part-time club but we have to – if we don’t put in the time, we won’t get the results.”
One moment from Taulapapa’s season many rugby league fans will recall would be his challenge on Jamie Shaul during Rovers’ Challenge Cup tie against Hull FC in May. On the incident, which many supporters thought was shocking and should have led to a greater punishment for the centre, the player himself admitted it was simply an accident. “I just mistimed it! By the time I got near, my head was leaning forward but I was trying to watch for the ball coming down but I thought ‘it could be just there’ – I just thought I’d go for it!” At pains to explain that there was zero intent from the experienced centre, Taulapapa admitted that “there was no menace to it, I made sure that I tackled him on the body.” Futhermore, he joked that, had he actually tried to catch the ball, he could have crossed for a try. “I’ve had that many kicks to chase and I’ve never got there. I realised that I could have had a chance to score the try to be honest, Shaul didn’t even jump!” The former Sheffield Eagle also confessed to believing that he should have been sent off for the offence but, while bemoaning television’s tendency to show such incidents in super slow motion, he felt he deserved his two game suspension.
The refereeing in British rugby league is a hot topic right now and that particular match was one where fans, pundits and journalists all believed that the officiating could have been better. Agreeing with the notion, Taulapapa stressed that referees do a good job in what is a hard role but also imparted an NRL initiative which, about a decade ago, ensured officials started to come through to the top level who had an understanding of the game from a player’s point of view. “In my last two seasons in the NRL, I lived with a guy called Henry Perenara,” Taulapapa revealed. “He was playing the game at the time and the NRL were looking for referees, guys who had played the game, and I think that was a great concept.” Perenara has refereed in the NRL now since 2011 and has also officiated in previous Four Nations championships as well as Rugby League World Cups. A further aspect of the NRL cadets program which the former Samoan international explained was how the officials would go to club’s training sessions to meet the players. “When we did wrestling or a skill session, they would come assist us with tackling and stuff like that – so we would know what would get penalised in matches. That’s why it is so strong over there, the understanding is there.” Based on the success of this approach in the NRL, Taulapapa shared his belief that the RFL could do the same with officials in the northern hemisphere.
The part time nature of his career now with Featherstone is a far cry from his previous spell in the NRL with New Zealand Warriors and Cronulla Sharks but, having been in the UK since 2010, it’s a life he is now used to. Initially a signing for Gateshead, when they tore up his contract before he had started with the club, a friend of his took him to South Yorkshire and Mark Aston’s Sheffield Eagles. “A mate of mine, Tangi Ropati, took me down there. I thought I’d give it a go and I didn’t really look into the contract money-wise,” he explained, keen to just get playing rugby again following the unfortunate situation of having his Gateshead deal withdrawn. “I had a great first season with the Eagles, it was a slow start but once I got in the team it was good. The money, though, was nothing – I told the coach [Aston] at the end of the season that I was going home, that I liked it but I’m not playing for pennies.” Aston, however, was able to offer him a deal which was enough for him to stay with the club. Since then, he has featured exclusively in the second tier despite opportunities – and deals – to play in Super League. “I always had the desire to play there,” he admitted. “It’s sometimes just who you know I guess.” Indeed, a deal was penned in 2011 to start the following year with Hull KR but that fell through. “Craig Sandercock came in [a month after Taulapapa had penned the deal] and tore my deal up and gave my spot to someone else. I was really gutted about that. Sometimes, though, it’s a case of a different coach coming along and killing your dream.” Following that, the centre returned to Sheffield and remained there until 2016, making over 150 appearances for the South Yorkshiremen before moving to West Yorkshire and Featherstone Rovers. “I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had,” he discussed, admitting, though, that his Super League dream has now passed.
That isn’t the case, however, for one of his former team mates and best mates in rugby league, Castleford’s newest acquisition Quentin Laulu-Togagae. Speaking of his fellow former Eagle, Featherstone’s number four vocalised his delight following his Tigers move, saying “I’ve always thought he could play Super League. He has been a class player for years, you can see that from his record – tries, line breaks, assists, he’s great.” Speaking of his first game for the Tigers, Taulapapa professed how well his friend played. “He was great wasn’t he?! I thought he had a great game, he didn’t tell me he was playing six! He was a bit quiet in the first half but you have to get the feeling in a game like that, I think he was just getting into his rhythm,” he explained. “I think he is at the right club for him with a great coach [Daryl Powell] – he’s probably the best coach in the league.”
Nevertheless, still enjoying his rugby, Taulapapa now finds himself as one of the most senior players in both the Betfred Championship and Featherstone’s squad, leaving him – with his vast experience – as something of a mentor to younger players making their way in the sport. “I hope I can pass my experience on,” he shared. “When I came into rugby league with the Warriors, that was the culture. A couple of them took me under their wing, people like Francis Meli, and we bonded really well – I learnt a lot from people like him,” he explained. Suggesting that a strong team culture is important, that is what he feels he had at Sheffield, where he was part of a young team, as well as now at Featherstone. Harry Newman, a youngster who has featured heavily for Featherstone on dual registration this season, has featured twice in recent weeks for Leeds Rhinos and he is one youngster who has impressed Taulapapa. “I know Harry really well from working with him, he’s a good kid and I always get to have a good laugh with him,” he divulged. “He is the future when it comes to rugby league. In the year to come he will be ready for Super League and I’m glad he got his chance with Leeds – he told me that he’s been hoping to play so it’s great for him. He deserves it and he plays really well for us. He’s so strong, he’s got heart and he has that confidence about him.”
Now, with four games left in the Betfred Championship regular season, Featherstone are in with more than a chance of featuring in The Qualifiers following the split between the divisions. From speaking to Taulapapa, it’s apparent that he is a man with his feet on the ground right now – no doubt partially down to the new arrival of a baby into his family in recent weeks – and he is very hopeful for the rest of the campaign. “It’s a tough ask to get promoted but we want to – it’s the dream for every Featherstone fan and for us as players. It will certainly be tough to do it as part timers but we will be giving it our all!”