Making Them Miss

BY DAN

For a period through the 2022 season the longevity of Josh Papalii was freely questioned in the rugby league media.

Papalii had a quiet start to the year by his standards. It wasn’t so much the metres – just under 125m a game is hardly to be sneezed at – but more a downturn from the career peak of 2019/20 that had led people to not so much worry, but raise a sneaky eyebrow at. Then during the Origin series he played on 22, 26, and 33 minutes and had worth at that level questioned. He combined with some of the least productive games of his recent Raiders career during the same period. Two games of less than 100 metres in three weeks between round 14 and 16. One offload in the same period. Four tackle total tackle breaks between round 12 and round 16.

Worse, he looked tired and he looked slow. For a man renowned for being more truck than trailer, he had always been impressively agile. His feet at the line had been a huge part of what made him great, and his energy and power through the line built from there. Making people miss is something usually associated with smaller players with lighter bodies and thighs not made of cinder blocks. Perhaps not a surprise for a player that only became a middle half way through his career (and was less than 12 months from chasing down a halfback in open field) Papalii’s nimble feet had always been a huge part of his success. Those four total tackle breaks were less a down turn and more a canary whistling the Baby Animals ‘Early Warning‘ (man the early 90s rocked so hard). All of a sudden his dextrous feet looked heavy.

For any other player such a period would be written off as part of the boom and bust of the season. Players have good and bad periods, but when they have 30 plus years on the tires, and a history of being the be-all-and-end-all of the Canberra middle, people tend to worry. Even moreso, given the size and length of his contract (signed through 2025), a downturn brought worries of *another* long-term contract for an ageing player that would deliver diminishing returns. He’d been in our lives for 12 first grade seasons. Had the weight that Big Papa bore on his shoulders taken its toll? Had the man we’d famously compared to Boxer in Animal Farm finally be worked too hard for too long?

Fortunately for all of us, Papalii did reverse his form and even with that dip ended up having an elite season. You wouldn’t know it from the big counting stats that most of us rely on. His metres stayed around 125m a game. His post-contact metres around 50 per game, as they’d been all year. This jumped slightly in the World Cup where he averaged 131 and 52.5 in those metrics. But regardless of the relative stability of his metre output, it seemed clear to the (or my) untrained eye that the big man’s performance improved markedly as the season rolled on.

What came back was the footwork, and the ability to make people miss. As we noted through the first half the season that was relatively in line with his career averages of around two per game. But over the second half of the year, it jumped to stratospheric heights. He averaged four tackle breaks a game over the back half, and over five a game from round 18 as the Raiders begun their ‘run’ with a victory over the Storm. He ended the season with 81 tackle breaks, a career high, and fourth amongst props in the competition, behind only Jason Taumalolo, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Joe Tapine.

This wasn’t the only statistical count that Papalii proved elite. Among props he was fourth in offloads (39 – also a career high), sixth in line-breaks, 9th in runs over 8 metres and 10th in total metres. Of the 90 props in the competition he had the 17th most tackles, but the 51st most missed tackles (23 for the season, the third fewest in his career), a display of remarkable defensive efficacy and efficiency given the weight on his shoulders in attack. Rather than maintaining or going backwards, it suggested that he was finding new strings to add to his bow.

But more important was that his light-feet were back, perhaps better than ever. When he danced through the Tigers in round 25 it was a hint that perhaps our worries from earlier in the season were premature. It was a relief. Not in the least because one never wants to see a player a bafflingly brilliant as Josh Papalii meet their football mortality. But a bigger deal for Canberra for the reassurance that 2022 wasn’t the end of his prime, and that he’d still be worth the money in his deal for some years to come.

It’s one thing to be maintaining output at the stage of his career that Papalii is at. One could consider that metres, or offloads, or even defensive stress were the result of opportunity or circumstance. But when the big man is making people miss him, it’s enough to make you believe there’s more to come yet.

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