Daddy’s Back

BY DAN

Josh Papalii stepped out, and then inside defenders with adroit footwork of Baryshnikov. Cover defence hit him from the back, and he shrugged it off like a Dad shrugging off his overzealous kids. The bodies of Tigers splayed behind him, he found the line, put the ball down, and made a face for the cameras. The message was clear.

Daddy’s back.

Earlier in the year such a combination of agility and power had felt far away. Through the origin period Papalii had felt a shell of the man he once was. Gone was the single-minded force dragging Canberra through the middle. Gone was the man we had demanded get a statue (stand by that) and compared to Boxer from Animal Farm. Instead he was lumbering, but without the ability to carry along defenders as he lumbered. Perhaps we were witnessing what many speculated was, if not the beginning of the end, at least the beginning of the next phase.

Around an Origin series in which he played 22, 26 and 33 minutes, he had some of the least productive games of his recent Raiders career. He looked lethargic. We wondered if he had the ‘flu, or hadn’t physically recovered from something else he had earlier in the year.He had two games with less than 100 metres on the ground in the three weeks between round 14 and 16 (season total three). He looked tired. From round 12 to round 18 he had four total tackle breaks.

He’s had more than four or more tackle breaks in a game four times since then. Over the last six weeks of the competition he’s averaging 140 on the ground a game, compared to 124 on the season. At the back end of the season he’s seemingly improved on every outing, and Joe Tapine’s lone-star act through the first two-thirds of the competition has quietly grown into a [insert collective noun for props – a pounding? a horde? a bore?]. While this has always been a strength for the Raiders, it’s been a weapon at the back end of this season. The Milk have stepped up their output from being one of the worst yardage teams in the competition to top four quality in terms of metres through the back end of the season. It’s a big part of the reason they’re playing finals this weekend, rather than watching.

In addition to save the season, it’s been pleasing to see that there’s plenty left in the Papalii petrol tank yet. Given he’s got at least two years after this one, the Raiders will be hopeful that this year’s mid-season swoon is a one-off thing. With Jarrod Croker and Elliott Whitehead likely to have smaller roles in the coming seasons, Canberra can ill-afford to tie well over fifteen per cent of their salary cap on three limited players, especially given the fight they will have on their hands to keep Joe Tapine in green.

There’s a transition coming from Papalii in the coming years, hopefully later rather than sooner. He’s been the workhorse and star of this pack for so long. The light ahead is the mainstay, the father figure, to the next crop of forwards like Trey Mooney and Ata Mariota. The player with more impact off the field than on. Sia Soliola played that role for the last few years of his career, and at some point towards the end of the contract, it’s a transition Papalii will make. When that happens it won’t be the fifty plus minutes, 150 plus metres a game we’ve become so used to. Papalii will be more impact than bulk. That’s ok, it’s not a job that he’d have a problem with. It might not match his pay, but that’s the deal

But for now that’s not a consideration. The worries of June have given way to the promise of September. Josh Papalii has shown that he’s still capable of being a week-to-week elite prop in the NRL. He’s still got the feet, and the power, that can turn any carry into an event, that can find any try line, no matter who’s hanging around. *The* Josh Papalii may have been missing through the middle of the year. But no matter, because right now, the big guy is back.

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