Rob Tanielu has played alongside some of the greats in the NRL, but his own career was cut short by injury.
Standing at an imposing 6 feet 7 inches tall and weighing 130kg, it’s hard not to spot former NRL powerhouse Rob Tanielu.
The former Brisbane Bronco, Melbourne Storm and North Queensland Cowboys behemoth was the next best thing in rugby league back in the early 2000’s, before a serious career-ending neck injury cut short his blossoming NRL career.
As one of the tallest players to have ever played in the NRL, Tanielu reflects on just how close he was to playing more games at the top level and what it was like playing alongside household names such as Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Johnathon Thurston.
“I was born in Christchurch, New Zealand when my parents emigrated from Samoa.
“My mother passed away when I was six years of age, so my dad basically raised me as a kid.
“Growing up in Christchurch, you either played rugby union or rugby league and after playing a bit of union, dad thought I was more suited to rugby league.
“I played for the Sydenham Swans and because I was bigger than most kids in my age group, I actually ended up going up a few divisions to play with kids much older than me.
“I eventually ended up making the Junior Kiwi schoolboys’ side when I was 16 and played alongside some pretty handy footballers in Jeff Lima, David Faumuina and Iafeta Palea’aesina.”
But it wasn’t until Tanielu crossed the ditch into Australia as a wide eyed 18-year-old that his rugby league career would turn full throttle thanks to his player manager Jim Banaghan.
“Jim got me a start with the Wests Panthers in the Queensland Cup where I cut my teeth in the local competition.
“After some good performances with the Panthers, I ended up making the Junior Kiwi side and played two tests against Australia.
“I must have done something right in that tournament, as the Broncos called my manager straight after offering me a contract to sign for the 2001 season.
“When I first met Wayne Bennett, who was coaching the Broncos at the time, he said that there were no guarantees of me playing first grade and that I was to play for the Broncos feeder club Toowoomba Clydesdales in the Queensland Cup.
“In a strange twist, my coach at the Clydesdales back then was current Broncos coach Kevin Walters who probably got the best out of me that year.”
Tanielu’s claim to fame though would arguably be in the 2002 season when he wrote himself into rugby league folklore, playing a pivotal role with the ‘Baby Broncos’ side that defeated the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown.
“I remember my NRL debut like it was yesterday. The Broncos had eleven players out through Origin duty and injuries and I was told during the week that I would be making my first-grade debut.
“That game against Wests Tigers did not go to script as many experts wrote us off even before a ball was kicked.
“But we actually had Craig Bellamy as our coach for the night who believed in us that much that I felt I was bulletproof when I ran out onto the field.
“To win that game against the odds and score a try on my debut, I couldn’t haven’t written the script any better.”
Tanielu’s Broncos career came to a grinding halt though when he sustained a serious neck injury.
“I actually did the injury playing for Wests Panthers all those years ago, but it flared up at Brisbane in a tackle that went wrong.
“When the Broncos released me, I trained hard in rehab and was given an opportunity to pen a deal at the Melbourne Storm for the 2003/04 seasons.
“Heading down to the Storm, I was a bit nervous as they had the likes of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Stephen Kearney on their books.
“However, I put in at the Storm pre-season and was rewarded with five appearances for the club, that for me, was simply unforgettable.”
With salary cap pressures gripping all NRL clubs, Tanielu was released from his Storm contract, but found a new home back in Queensland with the North Queensland Cowboys.
“I ended up playing alongside the greatest player I have ever played with, Johnathon Thurston, at the Cowboys.
“JT was just on another level, he was mesmerizing.
“When I ended up in Townsville with the Cowboys, I was hoping that I could revitalise my career up there, but it wasn’t to be and I sustained another serious neck injury which saw my vertebrae pushing onto my spine.
“I had to have surgery to rectify the problem, but it was the end of my rugby league career when the surgeon told me that I could possibly end up a paraplegic if I kept playing.”
Whilst the gentle giant contemplated life after football, it was the start of a new career, but this time not carting the football up the middle, more so stacking weights onto a barbell.
“I saw a good mate of mine bodybuilding on Facebook, so I decided to have a go myself.
“I had a pretty intense rehab on my neck and had to watch the amount of weight I was lifting, but I was still in reasonable shape and ended up bodybuilding for four years, eventually competing.”
These days, the humble Tanielu can be seen as assistant coach at the Norths Devils in the Queensland Cup and is heavily involved with the Queensland Samoan Rugby League.
“Rugby league still pumps though my blood and I enjoy coaching the Samoan kids and women’s rugby league teams all whilst overseeing the Devils.
“Regardless of how my career ended up through injury, I can thank my lucky stars that I am still able to walk.
“I was truly blessed to have been given an opportunity most players only dream about; you just have to believe in your ability and the rewards will eventually come.”
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 487 (August 2023)