Josh Papalii is a rugby league hero


In the last week Josh Papalii has rumbled for 150 plus metres, sprinted 70 to catch a runaway halfback that literally no one else in the team could catch, all while rocking a tremendous mullet and making sure his good mate Dunamis Lui got his due for reaching a milestone. It’s also emerged he is in talks to be a Raider for life (as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Christian Nicolussi).

Solid week.

If he hadn’t knocked Jamal Fogarty to the ground it would be hardly have been an unusual week, so central has he been to the success of the Milk over the last decade. In the later-era Campese era he was the young firebrand, (relatively) lithe and nimble for a guy his size. For 2016 Raiders, the first Canberra ‘contenders’ since the golden era, he was a rampaging backrower, running off the shoulder of his halves and terrorising whoever the poor person who was trying to tackle him. Then in the current era he’s been part of every great Raiders moment, the quiet, unassuming leader of a pack. He’s taken on a new role, bulking up and moving to the middle just because that’s what the team needed of him. He’s become a through-point connecting generations – the foundation stone of one era becoming the beacon of the next.

The ankle tap is just part of a career full of moments that have been reasons to celebrate him. Remember Papa stalking Paul Gallen in the 2012 semi final? He had the representative player and renowned hard-nut begging the referee for protection. Remember the “Once Upon a Time In Melbourne” comeback last year? When Josh Papalii rolled 15 metres up the guts of a Melbourne defence that *never* collapses my hands shook with excitement. Not only did he ice the game but he made even the most cynical Canberra fan believe. Remember the preliminary final, and how he took the hopes and fears of hundreds of thousands of fans, put them on his shoulders and simple ran them into the grand final for the first time in 25 years? He’s been there for every damn ‘moment’ in recent Raiders history, more often than not, at the very heart of it, driving Canberra’s fate.

In between all that he’s been a perennial representative at Queensland and Australian level, a critical part of the Maroons forward pack, and arguably the best damn prop in the game. Sticky called him the best forward in Canberra history and to be frank it’s hard to argue with that. So when it emerged in recent weeks that the Milk were trying to make him a lifetime Raider it was no surprise.

Being a one-club player in the modern era is a privilege few get to have. The list of greats that have stayed at the one place isn’t long. For Canberra we’re talking Loz, Toots, mini-toots (probably) and Tonguey. I know I’ve missed some, and hopefully names like Wighton join it, but regardless, the list is hardly extensive.

Reader Charles Ironside argues for the inclusion of Gary Belcher, Mal Meninga, Gary Coyne, Chris O’Sullivan, and Ken Nagas.

I wrestled with what to do with the QRL folk. At the time I think it’s fair that you could consider the QRL and the NSWRL broadly equivalent in stature which was why I left them out. O’Sullivan was one I considered but because the point was about modern I decided that era isn’t quite modern – but I’m not wedded to that. My feeling is modern footy began with the 10 metre rule which came in mid-93, but it’s probably safer to say something like NRL-era.

I think Nagas is a definite misses by me though.

Reader Mark points out in the comments below that I missed TERRY FLIPPING CAMPESE and I have brought shame to my family, to my city and to the team I love. I can only apologise.

It’s a reality of modern football and the salary that even your favourite players have to look elsewhere to make sure they get the most financially out of their careers. Heck, even Josh could have been wearing the blue and gold of Parramatta right now if not for a change of heart.

One day they will build a statue of Josh at the new Canberra Stadium on the edge of Civic, and it’ll be another place we can all get a photo standing underneath, another spot for a pilgrimage to tell our children and grandchildren that once upon a time there was a guy called Josh Papalii. There will be no tinge of sadness that he played somewhere else, no need to explain that he spent a couple of years at the Gold Coast for the money. He was ours. He made us great. And he was a rugby league superhero.

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