A training camp in Colorado helped Timana Tahu rediscover his love of rugby league
Nick Walshaw The Daily Telegraph May 11, 201212:00AM
UNDERSTANDING Timana Tahu requires a trip to Red Rocks.
C'mon. Let's follow that winding Colorado mountain road all the way up through rattlesnake country - to 2000m above sea level - until, finally, we arrive at a breathtaking amphitheatre some 300 million years in the making.
U2, they say, rocked this joint to its earthen core in '83.
Neil Young, John Denver, even The Grateful Dead are among others who have brought Americans to their collective feet here among craggy shadows where, decades earlier, Ute Indians would dance.
Shadows through which, this particular morning, Tahu climbs.
While sunrise is not long gone, a sweaty white shirt already sticks tight to this athletic Aboriginal as he pushes up among the wooden bleachers which, looking down over a stage and, beyond that, the city of Denver, seat almost 10,000.
... Up here, pain is plentiful and oxygen scarce. For an Australian equivalent, think hill sprints 300m from the peak of Mount Kosciuszko.
"So as for whether you climb 400, 500 stairs, who knows?" Tahu says. "Counting is too difficult when it feels like you're breathing through a straw."
Sitting now with League Central after another Knights ballwork session, Tahu is finally speaking out about the secret American training camp that has not only stripped 10kg and reinvented him as a centre, but freed this dual international of a silent loathing for all things rugby league.
It was only 12 months ago that Tahu, having emerged from a series of racial dramas, found himself overweight, underwhelmed and stuck in the Penrith Panthers backrow.
"And I hated it," he says. "I wasn't upset with being at Penrith, they'd given me an opportunity.
"But I was weighing 106kg, playing in the forwards and trying to get fit enough to go back out wider. Nothing was working."
Which is why he went to Red Rocks and why, last October, when other NRL stars where holidaying in places like Las Vegas and New York - even visiting the Dallas Cowboys - this Newcastle signing outlaid $5000 to enter a UFC training camp with close friend and Sydney light heavyweight, Jamie Te Huna. A camp where, for the best part of a fortnight, every day started on that mountain.
Tahu sweated and gasped for around an hour before driving back down into Denver, to the exclusive Muscle Pharm gymnasium where - alongside UFC superstars like Rampage Jackson, Cheick Congo and Mark Hunt - he would lift weights, spar and spend hours on the mat wrestling Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts. Yep, wrestling. The great scourge of the NRL.
Yet not only did Tahu spend his fortnight getting "bashed, completely towelled up", he also studied the moves of Jackson and co, then worked out ways to incorporate them, legally, into his own game.
"And it's given me an edge, definitely," Tahu enthuses.
"Perfecting takedowns, conserving energy, using someone's strength against themself, they are all invaluable.
"At 96kg, I'm the lightest I've been in eight years but I'm still competing defensively because of what I learned."
A key motivator coach Brian Smith first identified when, as part of his pitch to sign the Novocastrian to Parramatta back in 2005, he called his staff together only minutes before a clandestine meeting with the footballer and told them: "When you blokes meet this kid, you have to treat him like an athlete."
So they did. Over the next three years they allowed Tahu to train by playing basketball, doing sprint classes, and even producing countless tapes on Detroit Lion Barry Sanders, among the greatest and most elusive running backs in NFL history.
"And that approach, the one that made 'T' league's greatest centre, it's back," a close friend says. "I've never seen him smiling so much as he is now ... and a smiling Timana Tahu is the most dangerous proposition in rugby league."
Certainly you get the feeling Knights coach Wayne Bennett agrees - even if he's never heard of Rampage and, when asked what it would take to get him to a UFC event, deadpans: "You wouldn't."
"I thought Timana, if he wasn't playing league, was being wasted," Bennett says simply of the decision to sign him. "He's a rare talent and when in form, people want to watch Timana play."
And so it's about this time we wind up our trip and say goodbye to Red Rocks.
It's back home to the ugly truth that Kurt Gidley's gone, Danny Buderus is busted and Darius Boyd has broken down at half-time.
Hyped premiership favourites in January, Newcastle are now outsiders for the eight and struggling to score points.
So, yes, there are tough times ahead for the Knights. For Tahu. But at least now you know he has come prepared.