The Impact of the Papa injury


The Raiders challenging start to 2023 just got a little worse with David Polkinghorne of the Canberra Times revealing that Josh Papalii is not only out for this weekend, but is unlikely to be ready for round two.

It’s a drastic step up from the “race against time” rumours that emerged over the weekend. When they surfaced, along with the Raiders conspicuously leaving the NSW Cup starting prop position open, we had assumed that the club was leaving space for Papa to be ready this weekend (and therefore push one of Pasami Saulo, Ata Mariota, Emre Guler or even Corey Horsburgh back to Cup footy). But instead of the big guy beating the clock, he’s now got an elongated rest.

The rumours around an injury to that handsome brogue emerged after the testing warm-up to the second trial match. Lord knows one hopes *that* injury is not related to *this* one. What we speculated was a test to ensure that the club was ready for the Townsville soup this weekend could well have weakened rather than strengthened the side. That’s a depressing thought.

Taking on the quality pack of the Cows, and the rampaging power of Jason Taumalolo without Josh just amps up the test the Raiders face this weekend. Papa is no longer the lead prop in the team, but he’s unquestionably still a top line player. After a middling period last year he turned on the jets in the back half of the season. Over the second half of last season his performance was astounding and it proved the old warhorse still had it in him.

Near 130m a game, 81 tackle breaks for the season (a career high, and fourth among props in the entire competition behind only Taumalolo, Joey Taps and Nelson Asofa-Solomona). 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.

So to say Canberra will miss him is an understatement. But like all good clouds it comes with healthy dose of argentum to line our lives. After wondering whether the next generation was ready, we now have a red-hot test of that. One of the best packs in the competition, which is not only large but unfairly mobile, on their home ground in weather than would make a lobster nervous. Follow that up with what could be a “must win” in round two, and suddenly Ata Mariota et al have quite the little period on their hands.

I’m most excited by Mariota. His form in Cup footy last year was excellent, and despite a less than inspiring team performance in the trial matches, he’s actually looked pretty good. It’s such a cliche to say, but he looks like a mini-Papa, using quick feet in the line to create space and momentum in sets. When he does get caught first crack, his powerful legs move mountains to make sure four metres becomes ten or a quick play the ball. For his part Pasami Saulo is intriguing. He seems a high energy player and a willing defender. I haven’t seen him take a carry in anger yet, but such has been the detrimental position that the Raiders played from through the trial period that it’s probably fair to give him another week or two to prove his worth.

But more than the new guys, now is a test for the old guard. I’ve no doubt that Joe Tapine will be dominant. Im less sure about whether Corey Horsburgh and Emre Guler will be. They were both poor in the trial matches. Horsburgh has proven he’s better than that, and this now presents a clear need and opportunity for him to take the leap we had ascribed to him this season. Guler has an opportunity to break out of the torpor that has beholden his career since the optimism that accompanied his arrival in 2018.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Corey Harawira-Naera and Elliott Whitehead go at lock. We’ve pegged them both as playing some middle this season, and this will be a strong test to start with. The worries of either playing middle was their ability to match it with the biggest and baddest props in the game. Well, here’s your litmus test.

Like the early draw, its pre-season injuries and structural change, and the trial form, this latest setback is hardly ideal for the Milk. The gradient of the battle just took on a steeper incline. Let’s see what the test reveals.

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