Junior Paulo arrived at Canberra with much fanfare. Already a burgeoning star in Sydney, he was part of a growing number of players that seemed to be attracted to the bright lights of the nation’s capital.
Though Ricky Stuart would never admit to it, his decision to sign Junior Paulo early in the 2016 season essentially packed the bags of Paul Vaughan. Both young props had oodles of potential. Vaughan had shown in his years with Canberra that he was the kind of prop who’s on-field performance could be the engine for a side. Junior came into the side with a well-deserved reputation as a bruising runner, something he confirmed when he ran over Jamie Buhrer early in the Canberra career.
Despite the obvious case for Vaughan (e.g. like we made here), the Raiders made a decision that only two of Boyd, Paulo and Vaughan could stay. And so Ricky chose Junior. This was arguable at the time. Boyd was on his way to representative honours at the time. Paulo and Vaughan were also in representative conversations, although at a lower level. It wasn’t clear than any was better than the other (even if we did have our favourites). Coach Stuart saw the light in Paulo and jettisoned Vaughan later than offseason.
Paulo’s arrival confirmed Sticky’s reputation as an attraction for talent. Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer, BJ Leilua, Joe Tapine and English representatives Josh Hodgson and Elliot Whitehead had also arrived, forcing roster decisions of their own (like the saddening departure of Shaun Fensom and the retirement of Terry Campese). The Raiders were on the way up, and Paulo was getting on the bandwagon. Paulo was excellent for the Raiders, and in 2017 averaged 141 metres a game, the most for the side, winning the Mal Meninga medal for player of the year. But around him the side was less impressive and the Raiders faltered throughout the year.
Even worse, the Raiders got to watch on as Paul Vaughan took a torch to the National Rugby League. Averaging over 147 metres a game as part of a rejuvenated Dragons team, for a good proportion or the season he was the form prop of the competition. Raiders fans could only watch as the player nurtured through the Raiders’ ranks tore it up for his adopted side.
It was a sliding doors moment. The Raiders chose Paulo. And he was fine. They let Paul Vaughan go. And he was excellent.
And in the meantime the Raiders performance dipped and suddenly the grass didn’t seem so green in Canberra. Rumours had begun in late 2017 that Paulo was looking for new pastures.
In 2018 the Raiders have at least seven forwards coming off contract. Boyd, Papalii and Paulo are all seeking good money and the Raiders have again seemed wary of spending big on three big forwards. Paulo’s 700k a year seemed like a steep price for the Raiders to match, even if it is a fair price for a very good prop as pointed out by Nick Campton from the Daily Telegraph.
And unlike 2016 it’s unlikely that there’s another big name prospect eager to come to the capital. The Raiders window remains open but the sun no longer shines in. Ricky Stuart is more often spoken of in terms of ‘hot seats’ than he is as a potential attraction for free agents. Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer have both been the subject of rumours of signing with an array of Sydney clubs, and the Raiders will do well to keep together their elite players that come off contract after this season. Josh Papalii is the beneficiary, and he becomes the potential round peg for the hole in the middle left by Paulo’s departure. But that requires keeping him too.
So yet again the Raiders faced a sliding doors moment. Not only have they missed out on Vaughan but they also lose Paulo. Instead of choosing between another sides’ star and their own, they are forced to choose which of their players they can keep. The Raiders have made their choice. And so it’s goodbye Junior Paulo.