IN SOME ways, the Kiwis are fortunate to have Marty Taupau lining up for them in the Four Nations final on Monday morning (12.30am AEST).
The Sea Eagles enforcer, who is a key element of New Zealand's powerful bench, came close to leaving rugby league to pursue an NFL opportunity.
Not only does he seem physically suited to it, but Taupau loves American football - everything about it - and earlier this year he pondered chasing his dream in the United States.
"I did consider making the move to the NFL before I had (re-signed) with Manly," Taupau said. "There were a few options there for me but I had to consider everything in play. I had to make the smarter decision in terms of myself and my career."
If anything, Taupau's NFL quest came too late. At the age of 26, with a young family, he didn't have the years to pursue such a single-minded dream. But there is no doubt he wanted to.
"In another life I would," Taupau said. "I've secured my future with Manly, signed right up to 2020. It's all league for me now. But if I had my time over, in another lifetime, I would go over and play the NFL."
As demonstrated by Jarryd Hayne, it's extremely difficult to convert raw athletic potential into an NFL-ready product, especially without the years in the bank.
"It's high risk," admitted Taupau. "I would be out for 12 or so months - out of rugby league - without being paid and I don't really have the luxury."
Taupau appeals as someone who could have made the switch - with his raw power, aggression and agility - and watching him hurl 50-metre gridiron-style passes at Kiwis training makes you wonder if he could have been the first running back who could also play quarterback.
But Taupau has committed to the NRL over the next four years, a bonus for the Kiwis. He has been a formidable force in the Test arena since his debut in 2014, recognised as one of the best impact forwards in the sport.
His game is built on hours in the gym, which has earned him the title of the NRL's strongest man.
"Strongest man - it's a crack-up," Taupau said. "If only they knew. It's hard. It's really hard to be on, 100%, in the gym every day or every second day. It takes a massive toll on my nervous system; most of the time you feel like you get hit by a train."
The relentless workouts in the gym (Taupau can bench press almost 200kg and has recorded a 300kg deadlift) has a double benefit. It provides not only the physical platform for his game, but also the mental framework.
"I've conditioned myself mentally - it's all a mental game," Taupau said. "You can be so fatigued, so much lactic acid build-up in your muscles, but if your mind is set you can conquer anything. I have conditioned my mental strength to keep pushing to the limits ... there is never an end for me."
It feels like Taupau has been under-used on this tour, averaging about 30 minutes a game compared to 40 or more in the Stephen Kearney era.
Giving the 1.90m, 112kg prop more minutes could be crucial in Monday's Four Nations final at Anfield, not that Taupau seems to mind.
"I'm happy wherever I am, whenever I play," Taupau said. "I'm never content, never complacent. Even if it is just coming on for 10 minutes and racking up as many metres as I can ... that's what I'll do."
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