Last night you may have noticed that Josh Papalii was the joint winner of the Mal Meninga medal, awarded to the Canberra Raiders player of the year. This award is voted on by the players themselves, meaning that the media’s obsession with the people that score tries tends to be avoided. Heck, Josh Miller won the award. Twice.
(Quick tangent: We here at the Sportress in our pre-blog days used to joke that Josh Miller loved running into things. I always thought this would make a good TV show. “This week on Josh Miller runs into things….without the ability to climb the coconut tree, you won’t believe how Josh gets the fruit to fall”).
Papallii was the joint winner with Josh Hodgson, a player who has received a lot more attention from both local and national media, not to mention a borderline love affair that has led to the awkward love letters that seem to appear in these pages week after week.
It says a lot that Papalii is held in equal esteem by his colleagues has Hodgson. Throughout this year he has been the star of a forward pack that has been full of big names, a model of consistency on the left edge, bending and breaking the line seemingly at will. Since round 7 he has been a rich and rare vein of form, averaging over 130 metres a game, including 146 rampaging metres last weekend against a Panthers defence that rushed up specifically to stop him from making yards. He did anyway.
His impact is even understated by the old metres gained metric. So often his hit-ups are the ones that boost sets like nitrous oxide, changing the dynamic of a game by changing the momentum of a set. Nowhere was this better seen than in the Origin series this year, where his appearance off the bench in the first two games was critical in the propelling the ageing Queensland forwards. Is it a surprise that the majority of Queensland’s points in the first two games were scored when he was on the field? Were you shocked when the Queensland forwards were dominated in his absence in the third game?
Papalii, always a potential star has verified that through his performance this year. He will play for Australia again. He will be one of the first forwards picked next year for Queensland. To put it in clichéd sporting parlance, Big Papa has taken ‘the leap’.
Most people would assume that this improvement is simply a function of him coming into prime. After debuting in 2011 (!) he now has the experience to match his talent. And to be fair this seems to me to be a substantial reason for his rise. But I think there are a couple of factors we can point to.
Firstly, it’s hard to talk about Papalii without mentioning the ‘in the best shape of his career’ trope. I have no idea if it’s true, but it’s been said so much this year that I can only assume it has some carom of truth in it. Papalii, like BJ Leilua, has apparently discovered the benefits of eating like a professional athlete rather than like me. This seems like it must be helpful.
Another, more important factor has been his shift to the left side of the Raiders attack. Before this year Papa had spent most of his time for the Raiders on the right edge. This meant he got to spend his time running of known play-making luminaries such as Josh McCrone and Blake Austin. At various times I have loved both of these players, but neither could be accused of beating defences with their excellent passing and ball-play. Papa has often had to struggle with either being provided almost impossible face-balls from McCrone, or to do without it altogether as Austin stepped off his right and away from the big man. At other times he was used as a prop, which limits him to ‘just’ being an early-set battering ram.
This season Papalii has sat on the left side, on the outside shoulder of Aidan Sezer who has shown himself more than capable of feeding him. Getting the ball before the line has not only made it easier for Papalii to hold on to it, but it has also allowed him the space to utilise options. These options have largely taken the form of changing lines – his standard line is to the outside of the opposing defender, but he is running outside-in lines more often. He has unleashed a previously hidden ability to ball-play, often finding Jack Wighton on his inside shoulder and Jarrod Croker on his outside shoulder with smart, short passing as part of set plays.
Papalii still has improvement in his game. His ball playing will continue to improve. Playing out wide in defence means he can sometimes get exposed by quick halves and outside backs. But Papalii has shown this year that he is an elite forward in the National Rugby League. We’re glad his teammates have recognised him for this.