St Helens’ 36-year-old forward Zeb Taia will retire after Friday’s Grand Final, having spent a total of seven years over two different periods in the Super League.
But that time spent on French and British shores – with the Catalans Dragons and St Helens – may never have happened had things worked out differently at his second NRL club Newcastle Knights.
“I started my career at Parramatta Eels and then I had the opportunity to go to Newcastle,” Taia explained.
“I established myself as a first-grader and the town was almost the same as St Helens, a fishbowl town where everyone knew who you were.
“I was on the coast where the beach was and I enjoyed it.
“I was coming off contract and Wayne Bennett came to coach us in 2012 and I wanted to stay at Newcastle and finish my career there and be a one-club man.
“But I just wasn’t in his plans moving forward.
“I had to find another club and I thought it was too good an opportunity financially to move to France rather than stay in the NRL.”
A big influence in that move to Catalans ahead of the 2013 season was the Dragons’ then coach Trent Robinson.
With Robinson’s transfer to the Sydney Roosters, however, it left Taia scratching his head, wondering if the move was worthwhile. But as it turns out, it certainly was.
“I knew Trent when he was in Newcastle as an assistant to Brian Smith,” says Taia.
“He took my game apart in a good way and taught me a lot. That’s the main reason why I wanted to go to Catalans and they were going well when he was there.
“I thought about opting out and staying in Australia, but I thought it would be a good experience and I have no regrets. I’m glad I made that decision to jump on the plane.”
After three seasons in the south of France, Taia left for the Gold Coast in what he thought would be his last spell of Rugby League before he hung up his boots. Once again though, the physical forward was mistaken and he spent just a year in Queensland before St Helens came calling.
“I went back to Australia in 2016 and the plan was to go back and play two seasons and retire.
“So, it’s crazy how things have panned out – coming back to Super League was never part of the plan.
“I cemented a place in the squad at the Gold Coast, but things just happened really quickly.
“We were in pre-season and I just got a phone call out of nowhere from Keiron Cunningham (the then St Helens coach).
“Looking back then I just feel like ‘wow’, it’s been pretty successful. We’ve been the form team the last four years, but have won just one title.
“I’m glad I made that choice. We’ve got a good bunch of lads and everyone is really comfortable.
“We gel together really well and everyone works hard for each other. It was a rocky start at first but things have got better as the years have gone on.”
Retiring on a high is the main aim for the Australian, but he is not discounting a challenge from Wigan this Friday.
“You tend to take things for granted at the start of your career and now things are happening at the back end.
“With the circumstances at the moment and the uncertainty with everything going on, I would love to win another trophy with this club.
“There’s another great team vying for the trophy, but it will be really interesting to see what happens.”
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