As Canberra fans basked in the glow of the Milk’s victory on the weekend, Coach Ricky Stuart confirmed that Josh Papalii had signed a two year extension, keeping him at Canberra until 2025.
For a brief moment it had looked shaky. I say looked because it seems that this was a confected controversy that came from a mix of normal negotiating tactics and a Brisbane media keen to spin a story. There’s been so much drama at Red Hill this season that journalists have taken to extrapolating meaning from otherwise relatively anodyne public statements. It turned a discussion about an extension into one about a potential release and everything spun out of control until both the club and Papa’s management put it to bed.
I can’t exempt myself from that. While I’d not bitten on the statement originally, I was nervous when the noise emerged around it. My original assumption – that this was about making sure Papa got everything he deserved in the new deal – suddenly became eaten away by the anxiety of losing one of the goddamn heroes of Canberra. The joy I feel literally every day thinking about the 2019 preliminary final would be tainted seeing that man in Broncos jersey (yuck!). I assumed my initial assumption was right, but with the loss of Cotric and Bateman this year, I was nervous. And I wasn’t alone.
But, as many will rightly point out, I should have had more faith, both in the Raiders and Papalii, to make a deal. Papalii himself was clearly keen to stay in Canberra (for example Raiders fan legend Sue Washington pointed out he’d recently bought a new house in Canberra). As pointed out on last weeks Raiders Review with Blake and the Pork, one likely reason that Canberra have been so stringent with their cap recently was because they wanted to make sure they could do a deal with Papalii (and others I presume).
You can quibble about the rights and wrongs of this. For example if Papa’s money is the reason Bateman left then I’d wonder why they couldn’t delay Papalii’s extension and keep Bateman an extra year. But if there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that we can only make definite assessments based on what has happened. It’s clear that Sticky and Peter Mulholland have a plan for building a sustainable roster and Josh Papalii is a central part of that over the next five years.
Canberra is now his guaranteed home for his prime and the tail of it. He’s been incredible for the Green Machine, even moreso since his permanent move to the middle in recent years. Right now he’s the form prop in the competition and while he won’t always be that, his baseline is good enough to be worth big money over the life of this deal. He’s barely missed a game, and while he can’t always perform at his 2019-20 level, even a step down will be better than most.
Currently he’s averaging 152.4 metres a game, already a career high. It’s worth noting that includes a couple of recent games where he has been spelled for the second half which would obviously drag this down. Since he moved to lock in 2018 he’s averaged 131, 147 and now 152 metres a game. His post contact metres have already cracked 1000 for the season, a full five post-contact metres a game more than 2019 (56 v 51 per game) and a career high. He’s very much ensconced in his prime, and while this is likely the peak there’s nothing to suggest he can’t keep performing at something approximating this level over the life of this deal.
By the end of the deal he’ll be 33, and so there’s an argument that the Milk are paying for the prime while also getting the tail. I’m not so worried about that. I think his prime is going to fill the majority of this deal. The best props have been effective into their 30s. Petero Civoniceva’s first season at the Panthers was at 32, and he played Origin at 36. Jared Warea-Hargreaves is currently 31 and still in his prime, albeit probably the tail. Matt Scott played Origin at 31. Shane Webcke played Origin at 30. Steve Price was playing for Australia and Queensland at 35. Ruben Wiki was still playing for New Zealand at 33. Nutrition, minutes management and a range of other techniques in sports science continue to improve, so there’s nothing to say that Papalii won’t be worth this deal, if not beyond. This doesn’t even account for how Papalii’s load will lighten in the coming years as new recruits like Ryan James combine with emerging talent like Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler.
More importantly, Sia Soliola, Ryan James and Jordan Rapana will likely be gone by that time, and his role as an elder statesman will be even more profound. At that point I hope then the Raiders remember all he’s done for the club, and he doesn’t end up like Shaun Fensom, or Ruben Wiki, playing out the end of his career for another club. I’m not the first, the last, or the only person to say this, but the man deserves a statue.
But that’s a question for another day. The important thing is that the Raiders have locked up the best prop in the game for as long as he’ll be that. They’ve proven that questions about their ability to keep talent (put by idiots like me) are in all likelihood ill-founded, and that rather than losing talent, they’ve proven themselves strategic. Papa is critical talent to keep, not just for performance but also legitimacy, and Canberra is better for having him.
Equally important, it means we get to have this mostly gentle giant in our lives for the next five years. He’s already a legend in Canberra and rugby league, and that’s not going to go away over the next few years.