Rugby League

Papalii’s season to remember driven by a year he would rather forget

The first phone call about a driver swerving all over the road came through at 2.15am.

The next call to the police was at 2.33am.

Not long after, Canberra cult hero Josh Papalii was pulled over, breathalysed and returned a reading of 0.123.

Match-winner: Josh Papalii attracts a lot of attention in the preliminary final against the Rabbitohs.Credit:Getty Images

"It was a mistake that affected the rest of the club and the boys. We didn't need that at the time."

Papalii is sitting on a small leather chair in the middle of Canberra HQ during the week when he politely asks why we want to revisit the drink-driving incident. He was fined $1000, suspended from driving for eight months and dumped from the Kangaroos' Anzac Test in Canberra that year.

"I've moved on from that," he says.

And that is why we asked. Because he has moved on from it. He is in career-best form. And on Sunday he plays in his first NRL grand final. Life is good.

We explain to him that when a player hits rock bottom, it makes the good times that follow extra sweet.

Papalii nods. He knows things could have ended much worse that night.

"Actually, 2017 is a season I don't want to remember," Papalii says. "I guess it's a part of footy. You have some good seasons, you have some shit ones. If you're Cameron Smith, you only have great ones."

Canberra boss Don Furner had made some tough decisions in the past to move players on for off-field dramas, including Todd Carney and Josh Dugan, but it was different with Papalii.

Low point: Papalii leaves the ACT Magistrates Court back in April 2017 after pleading guilty to drink-driving.Credit:Nine

"He's never been hard to handle off the field," Furner says. "Everyone makes mistakes in life. I have. You have. But sacking him never came into question.

"He's always had a terrific work ethic, he's played Origin and for Australia, he's had the pressures with football and a young family, but he's always been committed and never any trouble."

Papalii finished 2017 playing for Samoa at the rugby league World Cup where he packed on 10kg and returned for pre-season training at 126kg. Junior Paulo and Joey Leilua weren't far behind. When they went to head off on a break, angry Canberra coach Ricky Stuart ordered them back to training and said: "You've just had your holiday at the Cup."

Fan favourite: Papalii is cheered on by Raiders supporters as he boards the bus for Sydney. Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

"I was drinking a lot of alcohol, eating shit, not training hard, it was eventually going to take its toll and it did during the World Cup," Papalii said at the time.

The 27-year-old returned last year hoping to make up for 2017, hoping to make an impact, but after an opening month of straight losses for Canberra, Papalii was dumped to reserve grade.

"I turned up here one morning at Raiders HQ, did some video and then Stick [Stuart] called me in and said, 'You need one week with Mounties [in reserve grade] to spark some form'," Papalii recalls.

"I didn't take it too well. It's something I'll remember for a long time because watching the boys play the Bulldogs that weekend before I played for Mounties, it wasn't easy.

"You think you're going OK, but we had lost four straight and I knew someone was about to miss out. Unfortunately, it was me. I didn't complain. We played Penrith in that reserve-grade game, we got pumped and I was thinking, 'Ahh man, I'm going to be down here for a while'.

"But I got back into the team on the bench, then finished the year at lock."

Papalii would now be the first picked for the Green Machine. Stuart was clearly still in awe of his Herculean performance against South Sydney last Friday night when he not long after described Papalii as the best player in the game.

Stuart has always admired Papalii and even tried to sign him when he was at Parramatta in 2013. Papalii signed a three-year deal, only to backflip.

Heavyweights: Papalii’s showdown with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves could be match-defining.Credit:AAP

When you point out he did a 'James Tedesco', Papalii shakes his head and says, "No, Teddy did a Josh Papalii."

"I had actually signed for three years," he says. "But it wasn't the best thing for me and my family at the time. When I was going through it all I actually saw Sticky in Brisbane and he just told me to do what was best for my family. He's always been like that.

"When he signed here I gave him a hug and it was never brought up again."

When big Shannon Boyd chased the bigger loot on offer at the Gold Coast and Paulo returned to the Eels during the off-season, Stuart was suddenly light on for big men and turned to Papalii.

For all the praise for recruiting the English quartet and moving Jack Wighton to No.6, Stuart's decision to move Papalii to the front row this season hasn't got the praise it deserves.

"When he first told me I'd be in the front row, I honestly thought about the kick-off carries straight away,'' Papalii says. "Junior and Boyd were so good at it, they were both 120-plus kilos and would come off the back fence.

"I'm not that run-over-the-top-of-people type of player. I get to ball-play and change a few angles. I enjoy playing in the middle now, I get a rest around that 20-minute mark, have some Powerade and then go back on."

He might not think he's an "over-the-top" player, but his match-winning effort against the Rabbitohs in the preliminary final would suggest otherwise. And he'll need more of that in Sunday's grand final. His showdown with Sydney Roosters forward leader Jared Waerea-Hargreaves will be one of the highlights.

Papalii has come a long way in two years. Unlike his 2017 season, Papalii will never forget 2019, regardless of Sunday's result.

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