It’s hard not to be excited about Joseph Tapine.
In week one against the Tigers he took off where he left 2020 – on a tear. For those of us who built permanent lodging on Tapine island, Joseph’s ongoing assault on the souls of defenders in the National Rugby League has been a boon for property values.
After waiting for Joe to start touching the edges of his potential since his arrival at the club for the 2016 season, 2020 represented the first time it felt like Tapine had found a ‘home’ as a rampaging middle forward. Much is made of the supposed conversation he had with Coach Stuart mid way last year. At this point, Sticky pointed out to he and Papalii that without their middle brethren (Guler, Horsburgh, Soliola), all eyes would be on them to deliver. Like a student punching out an essay the night before it’s due, the urgency clearly worked for Tapine. His 2020 statistics tell part of the story. 125 metres a game (as compared to a previous high of 92 per game in 2018). 1042 post contact metres over the season (his previous high was 765 in 2017). He made more tackles than any other point in his career, and missed less. It was a career year, a breakout year, the personification of a certificate of authenticity.
Smarter people than me would point out that even a broken clock is right a couple of times day. The true test of eliteness isn’t being good once, it’s being consistently great. Coming into the 2021 season Tapine was making all the right noises. He was made captain of the Maori All-Stars, and reflected that he wanted to become a leader of the pack in Canberra as well. People chucked around terms like maturity, but I know nothing of this. But he did feel settled and clear about what he wanted to achieve and how.
As if we should have worried. Tapine turned the first week of 2021 into a demonstration of what my be possible for him this year. The statistics tell a bit of the story. 130 plus metres, 3 offloads, a try assist, a line break and seven tackle breaks. The extra space afforded by tired defence has provided him with even more potential. Now he doesn’t have to choose between using quick feet to get between middle defenders, or sitting on an edge and going around defenders. In the below gif, he uses that lateral agility to stand up the first four defenders on one side of the ruck, before jumping back to the other side of the ruck and creating a rare moment of frivolity in attack.
If that looked familiar, it’s because Tapine put a similar move on the entire Roosters organisation in one of the great semi-final tries last year. Tapine went the other way in the second half, creating the Raiders’ last try by dancing around the entire middle defence, bustlting out of a few would be tacklers, and punching out his final offload of the game for Rapana to score.
It was everything Tapine can be and more. He was agile. He was powerful. He was skillful. The good people over at the Fifth and Last Podcast said a middle forward shouldn’t be able to dance like this. Well Tapine has done it before, did it again, and keeps doing it, defying the expectations of experts and reality.
The good news is that it’s not just with ball in hand that Tapine has upped his game. Perhaps the most obvious flaw in Tapine’s game over the years was his tendency towards mental errors in defence. Think Sam Verrills burrowing past a half-retreated Tapine to open the scoring in the 2019 grand final. There wasn’t so much a question of Tapine’s defensive ability – he was brutal when needed (ask Josh Addo-Carr about Joe’s defence after Tapine forced the error that led to BJ Leilua’s flick pass in the semi in Melbourne in 2019). Rather a question of ability to keep up that effort consistently. 29 tackles and one miss last weekend tells a bit of that story, as does the dramatic reduction in both misses and penalties conceded in 2020.
Tapine’s ability to improve his performance on both sides of the ball isn’t just mirrored in improved run metres and missed tackles ratios. He’s also improved the amount of work he gets through. The wonderful people over at the Rugby League Eye Test produce an ‘involvement’ rate statistic, that measures the proportion of plays a player is involved in. In his 42 minutes on the field, Tapine was either running or tackling on basically a quarter of plays last weekend. That put him fourth in the entire competition. That he could be so involved, with such an efficient output on both sides of the ball is astounding.
Oh, and did I mention he’s only 26? If he keeps up this performance it’s such a massive gain for the Raiders. Josh Papalii has been asked to carry such a load in the forwards in recent years. Tapine’s emergence as a week-to-week elite forward means there is more space for a quiet Papalii game to be matched with a Milk victory. It also means Papalii’s minutes can be saved for the back of 2021. Canberra’s middle depth is substantial; but Tapine is already the standout performer.
The Raiders had to wait for Joe Tapine to reach his potential. In 2020 he met that expectation, and delivered what the world had hoped of him. Round one of 2021 is just one game, but it looks like he plans on delivering even more in 2021.
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