Jordan Rapana has agreed to a temporary stay in Japanese Rugby and may be leaving the Canberra Raiders for good.
Rapana is the latest victim of Canberra’s success. What seemed like a fraught negotiation before the Raiders found the diamonds-in-the-rough in Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Bailey Simonsson, became moreso, an almost insurmountable contract triangle. Jordan was simply too expensive for the cap space that was left.
The irony was Rapana was the original Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad; a bargain basement buy that went from grinder to star. He was value personified, a man who came to Canberra on a wing and a prayer in 2013, didn’t get onto the field until 2014, established himself in 2015 and then became a goddamn phenomenon in 2016.
When he made his first grade debut in 2014, it was immediately obvious that he ran the ball harder than almost anyone else in the squad. But whether that would be enough for him to take the place of existing squad members wasn’t as clear, at least not to Sticky.
Here’s a list that played in the back three ahead of Rapana in 2014: Reece Robinson, Bill Tupou, Edrick Lee, Sami Sauiluma, Matthew Allwood, and BRENKO Lee. When he did get a shot, in round 22 and round 23 it was at fullback after the Raiders moved Anthony Milford into the halves.
He broke his fucking skull in the second game he played and kept playing because he obviously doesn’t feel pain. It was the first sign of an emerging trend of playing through pain for Jordy, a characteristic that may have cost him dollars from other NRL teams this year as he struggled through much of the early parts of the season with a variety of ailments.
He impressed so much in those few outings that the Raiders re-signed him even with the broken head. He established himself as a permanent fixture in first grade in 2015 and barely looked back.
But it was his 2016 that saw Rapana reach his potential. It started with the arrival of BJ Leilua mid way through 2015. While they hardly set the world on fire that season, they clearly forged a friendship. The “wake me up before you go go” instagram video was the perfect expression of two doofuses clearly having too much fun together (although I can’t find vision of it now – maybe I made it up? Was it a dream?).
On the field that closeness followed. Leilua and Rapana’s partnership formed like Voltron, the sum of their parts so much more than their individual wholes. It was carnage. Just watch this (NSFW: arousingly brilliant football).
Together they made things happen – scoring tries so incredible it made sense to see Rapana and BJ taking on 3 defenders on a last-tackle blind-side foray and scoring. That should never happen. It became one of the Raiders most reliable red-zone weapons in 2016 and beyond.
They were an offence unto themselves. Rapana had 23 tries in 2016, the most by a Raider in a single season. BJ had 10 try assists that season. Rapana backed that up with another 21 in 2017.
Recognition of his dominance came with selection the New Zealand side for the first time at the end of 2016.
Let’s be clear, Rapana was as good as any Raiders’ winger in history over this period. Ferguson, Nadruku, Nagas, BRENKO. The Raiders have had some quality at that position, and at his peak Rapana stands with them all (and maybe above for me). The try scoring was one thing, but Rapana’s singular ability to turn hard yardage runs into big metres through force of will has been a huge benefit to the Raiders, as was his safety under the high-ball.
There’s a school of thought that the Raiders will be fine without Jordan. This is based on the sensational starts of Simonsson and Charnze, and the fact his 2018 and 2019 wasn’t as dominant as previous years (largely due to the performance of those inside him and the injuries he carried trying to keep the Raiders afloat). I don’t subscribe to this theory. The Raiders will be tested without Rapana, and it’s a shame for the NRL that he’s not remaining in the game. If ever there was an argument for expansion it’s Rapana’s departure from the league. There simply has to be a better way to keep players like Rapana (and likely Aidan Sezer) in the league.
There’s hope that Rapana may return mid next year, but if you saw his farewell post on Instagram it certainly seems like he’s leaving Canberra for good (Update: it’s being reported by the Daily Tele’s excellent Fatima Kdouh that he won’t be allowed back). I hope it’s not true. Jordan Rapana was a stunning rugby league player we never saw coming. I wish we didn’t have to watch him go.