When James Tamou comes home from training and is greeted at the door by his four young sons, the Wests Tigers captain puts aside whatever else is on his mind to give them his full attention.
Tamou, who will make his 300th NRL appearance on Sunday against North Queensland, has achieved virtually everything in the game – winning the 2015 premiership with the Cowboys, playing 14 Origins for NSW and representing Australia in 12 Tests, including the 2013 World Cup triumph.
The Levin Knights junior is just the fifth Kiwi-born player to play 300 NRL games and his controversial Blues selection in 2012 even forced a change to Origin eligibility rules requiring players to have resided in their state before turning 13 years of age.
Yet possibly the greatest impact on Tamou’s development as a leader and father occurred away from the game during the 2020 pre-season when he was involved in fighting the devastating and deadly bushfires on the NSW South Coast.
The 33-year-old, who was playing for Penrith at the time, helped protect the properties of his in-laws and their neighbours at Braidwood as the fires that claimed eight lives and destroyed more than 1,000 homes on the Far South Coast burned through the area.
“It was a bloody tough time,” Tamou said. “It really opened my eyes. I wouldn’t say my life was in danger but there were times where I thought, ‘hang on, I might be stuck here. Let’s get the heck out of here’.
Fear, flames and fortitude: Tamou reflects on bushfire fight
“The neighbours copped it the worst and I remember one time going to a property, and we were there all day and into the night.
"As we headed home, a lady came out and just gave us a big hug. She was in tears and there were animals running loose.
“I was thinking ‘wow’. It can be tough in rugby league because you get criticised for some of the games you play but there are always worse things going on.
“Just recently I have read that families are sleeping in cars because they can’t find a house to rent, or they just can’t afford to rent. It makes me think, ‘what I am sitting there crying for’.”
The Panthers were in pre-season training after a disappointing 2019 campaign and Tamou had worked hard to shed weight and ensure he returned from the end-of-season break in the best condition of his career.
If I could go back in time I would go back and give myself an uppercut
However, preparations for the 2020 season were put on hold as he took up a hose to help fight the flames threatening houses, lives and cattle.
“It was just a case of what was more important at the time,” Tamou said. “Anyone else would have done the same if their neighbours needed help. Just because you play footy doesn’t make you special.”
'Growing and maturing'
Not that Tamou had always thought that way.
Without being asked he makes reference to an at times chequered past, which included a drink driving charge in 2013 that cost him a $20,000 fine from the NRL and his place in the NSW Origin team.
“There was once a time in my career and my life where I was a very selfish young man,” Tamou said.
League leaders: James Tamou
“If I could go back in time I would go back and give myself an uppercut. I guess that is all part of growing and maturing. You learn that it is not just all about you.
“I always pinch myself, particularly more so that I am nearing the end of my career, that I am living the NRL dream.
"Some people aren’t that fortunate, they just keep pushing forward. The last few years have shown us all that anything can happen.
“There was a time when I used to bring footy home with me. If I didn’t have a good training session, or I had a bad game, I would come home and take it out on the kids and I thought ‘that is not right, they don’t deserve that’.
“Every time now when I get home from training and they rush to the door, and say ‘Dad’s home’, I make sure that for those 10 seconds or so I am the best thing in their lives.
“I know one day when they grow up that won’t happen so I just drop everything at the door to try and be the father they want because of all these life experiences that have made me who I am.”
'It's a 24-hour job'
Growing up in New Zealand’s lower North Island, Tamou joins a select group of Kiwis among the 45 players to have played 300 NRL games, along with Benji Marshall, Adam Blair, Ruben Wiki and Simon Mannering.
Yet Tamou, who played for Aotearoa Maori in the 2008 World Cup ‘Welcome to Country’ match against the Indigenous Dream Time team, doubts he would have reached the milestone without learning from the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Paul Gallen what professionalism truly means.
Match Highlights: Indigenous v NZ Maori, RLWC 2008
“Being a professional athlete is not just a nine-to-five sort of job, it is 24 hours,” he said. “It is what you put into your body, how much sleep you get, it’s your water intake, it is all of those things you do away from training that prepare you to go further.
“The game has gotten so much quicker and the training intensity has risen, I would say, maybe even in the last three or four years.
“After a game it is pretty typical that you end up sore for the next few days but there are some training sessions that you need a day or two to recover as well.
“Players these days are coming straight out of school into that professional environment, and they understand what it takes to be a professional athlete. I didn’t really understand that until I was 24 or 25.”
After moving with his family to Australia at the age of 13, Tamou played for the Paddington Tigers and was the Sydney Roosters Jersey Flegg player-of-the-year in 2007 before joining the Cowboys, where he played alongside the likes of Thurston and Matt Scott.
Tamou played 170 NRL matches for North Queensland and scored a try in their historic 2015 grand final defeat of the Broncos, while establishing himself in the NSW and Australian teams.
However, there was controversy about his decision to choose the Kangaroos over the Kiwis and fearing a flood of players would turn their back on New Zealand so they could play Origin officials moved to change the eligibility rules.
“There was a big kerfuffle about it and I did cop a lot because I was obviously at the forefront of it but I would do it all again. I have zero regrets with that,” Tamou said.
“I remember growing up and playing footy every Saturday morning in the juniors, I would put on the ‘Electrifying ‘80s State of Origin’ DVD and watch that to get myself pumped up so to me that was definitely the pinnacle.”
The Origin eligibility rules are again in the spotlight after Roosters forward Victor Radley aligned himself to England and others, such as NSW wingers Brian To’o and Daniel Tupou, declared their allegiance to Pacific nations for the upcoming World Cup.
However, Tamou believes their decisions will benefit the growth of international rugby league.
“For these young players to be able to go back and play for their heritage and their country, I think is a good thing,” he said.
“It definitely makes it more competitive at international level and brings more eyes to the international game.”
Match: Cowboys v Wests Tigers
Round 19 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville